Substitute Al Capone for Mickey Cohen, and you have a gangster movie closely following The Untouchables’ formula but devoid of that film’s style and wit; an elite squad of police misfits are assembled to bring down a mob boss, and they aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty.
Director Ruben Fleischer (whose Zombieland was a lot of fun, but it’s difficult to see how anyone thought he’d bring out the best in this material) and writer Will Beall are no Brian De Palma and David Mamet, but I think they’d quite like to be. The Untouchables played on the clichés of the crime fiction and Mamet delivered an intentionally straightforward morality play; the flourish of De Palma’s direction and Ennio Morricone’s score transformed it into something indelible. The writer/director team of Gangster Squad simply delivers the B movie material in B movie fashion.
The production design and period trappings furnish the production with the kind of finesse you’d expect, but Fleischer’s approach is resolutely cartoonish. This is one step up from Dick Tracy, rather than one step down from serious mob fare. As if to emphasise its true heritage, Sean Penn’s Cohen is buried under ridiculous prosthetics; he looks nothing less than a supporting villain in Warren Beatty’s take on the comic book detective. Sure, the director can handle an action sequence. But he has no take on the material other than to render it as blandly pulpy as possible. When Cohen informs a henchman “You know the drill”, and seconds later the boss and a couple of goons make mince of his brains with an electric drill, it’s clear that this film has few aspirations to intelligence or refinement.
Needless to say, the script plays fast and loose with the history of the case. Early on, it looks like it might have the balls to eke out a distinctive path as squad leader John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) takes an unwise brawn-before-brains approach and nearly gets the team killed. But, with only a couple of sequences illustrating their approach and almost no insight into Cohen and his activities (other than that he is nasty, has designs on expanding his empire, and has a squeeze – Emma Stone – who is also seeing squad member Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling)), it’s set to end up shallow and dissatisfying. Lip service is paid to outsmarting Cohen, but the film is really only interested in over-the-top shootouts and car chases with tommy guns blazing. Such an approach could only take off if told with vibrancy, but what we get is so-so pastiche.
As such the cast is a waste; Brolin and Gosling give shading to the honourable cop and the jaded cop respectively. Brolin, at least, is something of a hardnosed variation on Costner’s clean-cut Elliot Ness. Mireille Enos also provides a different take on the devoted wife; pregnant and reluctant to see her husband killed, she gives his list of squad candidates the once-over to ensure he has adequate protection. Stone has great chemistry with Gosling, but her role is entirely derivative. Penn is unimpressive; most likely the script is partly to blame, but he’s your standard rent-a-thug. In The Untouchables, De Niro has considerably less screen time as Al Capone but the impact and economy of Mamet’s writing ensures that his presence is felt throughout. Other members of the squad are given little chance to make an impression, with Beall hoping the audience will pick up on their “types” in the place of characterisations (Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribsi – not mugging frantically for a change -, Michael Pena and Robert Patrick). It’s a predictable measure of Beall’s indebtedness to The Untouchables that the brains and old-timer in the squad don’t make it to the end credits; there is none of the pathos of the 1987 film, however.
The film required reshoots when a sequence in a movie theatre was cut following the Aurora shootings. It was replaced with the film’s Chinatown sequence; the makers would have better spent their time attending to the telegraphed plotting and lack of intrigue, rather than adding more explosions and bullet-riddled bodies. It is a violent film, but one with little impact; you don’t care much for the protagonists or their agenda and, by the time of the wearisomely inevitable fistfight announces the climax, Fleischer has completely lost any grip on the material.