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on 11 October 2015
The LAPD’s ‘Hat Squad’ of detectives who worked outside the law to keep organised crime from gaining a foothold in the city in the late 40s and early 50s seem such a natural for the big screen it’s surprising they’ve been only in the foreground of three films. Mulholland Falls (named after their habit of taking hoods to Mullholland Drive and rolling them down the canyon as a warning to get out of town) had the look and the cast but fell apart due to a messy unfocussed script that rarely came to life, while L.A. Confidential delivered the goods on all levels but failed to find much of an audience despite picking up a slew of Oscar nominations. Sadly, Ruben Fleischer’s Gangster Squad was a step back both in terms of quality and commercial appeal, going for a print the legend approach more inspired by The Untouchables that could have worked with the right director and cast but is hobbled by a clichéd script, bland characters made blander by an uncharismatic cast, Fleischer’s leaden direction and Dione Beebe’s extremely poor photography that’s clearly aiming for stylish but all too often just makes the action look murky and uninteresting. While the Squad’s real activities offer enough great raw material for a dozen movies, the film takes any notion of historical accuracy for a spin to the top of Mullholland Drive and kicks it down the canyon but never comes up anything to replace it but photocopies of photocopies of photocopies of scenes you’ve seen in a hundred other movies and all done better than this one.
Josh Brolin certainly has the look for a square-jawed former war hero using gangster methods to win back his city from Mickey Cohen (a snarling but superficial Sean Penn) and his mobsters but the film never really gives him much interesting to do while Ryan Gosling gives another of his recent run of utterly anonymous and smugly nondescript turns as his dreary sidekick in a part that’s desperately crying out for some charisma and star power. Robert Patrick at least gets a decent introduction before the writers almost completely lose interest in his character but Anthony Mackie and Michael Peña feel more like they’re only in the film because someone in marketing thought it needed to appeal to a wider ethnic demographic than a more historically accurate all-white squad of four. Giovanni Ribisi rounds out the squad as the nerdy brains of the outfit doing it for his wife and kid (and you know what that means in this kind of film) but he’s so flat you almost find yourself missing his over the top early performances. Emma Stone doesn’t make much impression either as Cohen’s moll and Gosling’s romantic interest (though he seems completely indifferent to her even when they’re sharing a bed) with the only brief signs of life in the supporting cast coming from Jon Polito and an on-his-best-behaviour Nick Nolte (no drunken growling into a phone for thirty seconds as he did when playing the lead in Mullholland Falls here), neither of whom get much screen time.
It’s the kind of thing that starts out mildly promising but just becomes increasingly perfunctory as it becomes clear that the film is never going to give you any reason to care about anyone while the script just ticks off gangster movie clichés from a list without ever bringing them to life. Despite some misjudged stylised touches, Fleischer is no Brian De Palma when it comes to staging a memorable setpiece: here stuff just happens and then it stops happening. Which pretty much sums up the movie: never bad enough to stop watching or good enough to set the pulse racing, you just watch it and when it stops you just forget it. It may not be Warner Bros.’ worst gangster movie (though it’s certainly a contender), but it’s definitely their dullest.
Extras are substantial but mostly perfunctory - director's commentary, deleted scenes (significantly not including the cinema shootout that was cut after the 2012 Aurora shootings), self-congratulatory focus point featurettes, location featurette and, best of the bunch, a 46-minute documentary on the real and much more interesting Mickey Cohen.