James Stewart stars as a railroad man hired to secretly carry a payroll despite his suspected connections to outlaws
When Sgt. John O'Mara (Josh Brolin) is tasked by gruff Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) with shutting down the operations of mob boss Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) in 1949 LA, he assembles a motley gang of officers (Ryan Gosling, Robert Patrick, Giovanni Ribisi and Michael Pena) prepared to work outside the law - the titular Gangster Squad.
Gangster Squad is a movie without an original bone in its body, that nevertheless has the potential to delight audiences who haven't seen the films it's cribbing from. You've got the evil incarnate mobster who wants to own everything and everyone, you've got the veteran hardliner disgusted by corrupt cops who turn a blind eye to crime in exchange for bribes, you've got the worried pregnant wife, the smouldering femme fatale, the disillusioned cop who will eventually see the light and join the good fight, the pensionable sharpshooter along for one final ride, the decent family man with adorable freckled kid and white picket fence, you've got the guns, the hats, the cars, the cigars, the casinos… Apart from Edward G Robinson, every '40s gangster staple imaginable is here.
It's a shame that other than a certain visual panache and some gorgeous tailoring, this list of staples is really all Gangster Squad has in its arsenal. With a cast like this, it would have been fun to really be able to get on board an elegantly constructed plot every bit as sinuous and ambiguous as the classics Gangster Squad is aping aesthetically. It just about works as a knockabout caper with plenty of bloody showdowns and slow-mo violence, but subscribes to a more-equals-more philosophy that leaves the narrative with nowhere to go for its big climax besides simply upping the firepower. Unfortunately, the plot preceding the final shootout is crammed with so much silliness that it's hard to feel anything is really at stake. It's a bit like watching a version of Bugsy Malone with adult actors and 15-rated violence - you might chuckle, but you're not really worried about what will happen to the characters.
One of the most delicious love letters to film noir ever made, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, is a movie that succeeds at both gently sending up and paying homage to yarns about deadly dames and washed-up detectives. Gangster Squad, in contrast, occupies oddly similar territory, but doesn't seem to know if it's taking the piss or not. If it is, then it feels strange that we're asked to take so much of it at face value. If it isn't, then the morass of cliches so cliched that they go beyond cliche into a strange area where you feel that every line has been culled, Frankenstein's-Monster-like, from an existing movie, are hard to account for. At least Sean Penn is having fun, chewing scenery with the all the grace of a killer whale launching itself at a beach full of seals, in one of the year's must-see performances.
Gangster Squad verges on a parody of hard-boiled noir in the vein of the Scary Movie/Date Movie/Epic Movie films, only with real A-list star power; it's a funny old mixture.
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