Sometimes perfectly dumb, perfectly fun and perfectly entertaining scripts get grabbed up by directors who think they are making serious films. That’s what seems to have happened with Ruben Fleischer’s Gangster Squad, a ‘40s gangster flick that had the potential to be — and I mean this in the best possible sense — dumb entertainment. However, any possible amusement value got sucked from it by derivative style and an uneven, too serious tone that betrays its true junky heart.
This is especially odd, since Fleischer’s previous cinematic ventures — Zombieland (2009) and 30 Minutes or Less (2011) — at least attempted to be nothing more than straight entertainment. Here, we have a movie (called Gangster Squad for crying out loud) with a solidly contrived B-movie premise about a group of hardass L.A. cops taking on real-life mobster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) vigilante style. Fleischer, unfortunately, has decided his best bet is to ape a whole slew of gangster films — like Scorsese’s combined work to Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987) — all while packaging it inside occasional and cheap approximations of Guy Ritchie’s visual style.
Granted, the history of cinema is so packed to the seams that derivation should be expected. For a recent example, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012) steals from many sources, yet it retains with a singular, self-indulgent worldview. In 1990, the Coen Brother’s nailed the whole gangster pastiche with Miller’s Crossing by creating a film wholly quirky and idiosyncratically their own. But Gangster Squad is just reheated leftovers. Fleischer’s staircase shoot-out is taken from The Untouchables (which was already an homage to the Odessa Steps sequence in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 Battleship Potemkin), but just sits there like some benign lump on the movie’s climax. A long tracking shot of Ryan Gosling entering a nightclub — evoking elaborate and famous precedents in Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990) and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights — becomes a vapid dud in Fleischer’s hands.
So much of the film feels listless and lazy. And the crudely lit interior and night shots make the film’s digital photography feel chintzy and visually flat (and a whole lot like a daytime soap). This would be perfectly suitable as a trashy work of overheated, hard-boiled pulp.
Penn is introduced quoting Dracula (1931) while affecting his best Bela Lugosi impersonation, and for a moment things look bright. But it’s all downhill from here because Fleischer is too concerned with how badass and macho all these guys in suits are. Occasionally the film looks like its veering toward fun, but all self-awareness soon vanishes, and what’s left is generally too straight-faced. Much of Gangster Squad suffers from the Christopher Nolan syndrome of taking inherently light, preposterous fodder — like Batman in Nolan’s case — and attempting to gussy it up (just check out the film’s overbearing fake Hans Zimmer score) into something seemingly weightier. Consequently, what’s left is a movie that’s not entertaining, energetic, enlightening or anywhere close to good. Rated R for strong violence and language.
Playing at Carmike 10, Carolina Asheville Cinema 14, Regal Biltmore Grande