When one takes a cops vs. gangsters genre film and sets it in the post-World War II era, it seems that the resulting list of those films which have succeeded with viewers and critics are remarkably short. There's L.A. Confidential and...that's it? Other films have borne out to be more fascinated with the dialogue and the clothes than an actual story, and almost all of the films have included a talented if not supremely recognizable ensemble no matter the circumstance. With Gangster Squad, Warner Brothers gives us the latest attempt into this hallowed ground.
Will Beall Castle wrote a screenplay based on the Paul Lieberman book, and Ruben Fleischer 30 Minutes Or Less directed. Set in 1949 Los Angeles, former boxer now aspiring mob boss Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn, What Just Happened) is gaining an increasing stranglehold on the Los Angeles crime world through brute force and drug sales. The Chief of Police (Nick Nolte, Mulholland Falls) reaches out to LAPD Sergeant John O'Mara (Josh Brolin, True Grit) and asks him to develop a group of fellow officers who can break up Cohen's operations illegally yet quietly approved.
John enlists the help of his pregnant wife Connie (Mireille Enos, The Killing) to help form the group of various officers, and it is an impressive one. Max Kennard (Robert Patrick, Safe House) is an aging yet reliable shot, and is apparently grooming a protégé in Navidad Ramirez (Michael Pena, End Of Watch). Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie, Real Steel) is an African American beat cop with pinpoint accuracy with a knife; Conwell Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi, Avatar) works with communications and may be the highest functioning member of the group. Rounding them out is Sergeant Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling, The Ides Of March), who has long since become jaded by the department's corruption. Connie picks him to help ensure John comes home each night to his wife and future child, and perhaps serve as a jumpstart for Jerry to find his ideals once again.
There are a flood of recognizable names as I have tried to illustrate here, but there are a few more than appear than make the viewer go 'Hey! I know that guy!' Among them I would say the most visible one of the moment is Emma Stone (The Help). Stone plays Grace Faraday, Cohen's girlfriend and latest crush for Jerry, who finds himself trying to save Grace while getting valuable information from her that would help the Gangster Squad thwart Mickey's business. The chemistry between Stone and Gosling tends to pick up where their work in Crazy, Stupid Love left off, and Stone's performance as this key role in the film is quite good.
While her performance is good, her work is limited to the restrictions the screenplay places on it, and this is something that permeates through the rest of the cast. In case you were wondering, this is not a good thing. There are two Oscar winners among the stars, and Gosling seems sure to win one in the near future, but they all portray characters that have been seen before in other movies. Once you get past Penn's unintentionally funny prosthetics (the large nose is missing the Groucho Marx glasses), he is just doing your typical excessively blustery antagonist, channeling De Niro's Capone from The Untouchables. And in between these histrionics, we experience a story that is checking off boxes from a list, if that list was a Greatest Hits compilation from other gangster films.
Fleischer seems to be not entirely concerned with the story, entrusting his actors with the chance to elevate the material into something that hardly evolves past the printed word. He includes grand sweeping camera shots, perhaps most of which are computer assisted, and his use of the Phantom camera to capture incredibly slowed down shots of gunfire and battles is admirable, but when contrasting in against the unoriginal mechanisms the story has to offer, it seems like unnecessary polish on an uninspiring work by a mainly uninspired group of actors.
Gangster Squad was initially a victim of poor timing, as its original September release was pushed back in the wake of the tragic shootings in an Aurora, Colorado. However, if Fleischer and the participants thought they were comfortable in perhaps not going back and making changes to the final product, they were sorely mistaken. And if they did make changes to it, uff da. The list of above the title stars and their collective talent does not lift the story in any real discernible way and thus, you are left with a stereotypical tome which imparts flash over substance.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Warner rolls Gangster Squad out with an AVC-encoded 2.40:1 widescreen presentation that looks excellent. If there is an upside of seeing Penn in this silly makeup, it is maybe a sign of how much detail the film has? Regardless, the disc has a ton of image detail, be it vein's in Penn's arms as he works a heavy bag during the opening scenes, or facial hair and wrinkles so deep one could mistake them for dry riverbeds. The black levels are inky and provide a superb contrast to the action onscreen, with nary a waver during the viewing experience. The sepia tones within the color palette look great and are not saturated in any way, and the overall product is breathtaking.
DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless surround rules the roost for the feature, with the result being outstanding. Dialogue is well-balanced and consistent, and each scene tends to include some form of environmental noise in the rear channels, whether it is quieter effects of trolleys and cars going by, or more aggressive things like gunfire rattling out through the soundstage. The subwoofer gets a lot of work to do in the film as well, whether it helps fill out the low end in an effects-laden sequence, or doing something smaller like having the automobiles of the period show off an accentuated growl when their engines start. Everything about this soundtrack was candy.
Quite a few supplements on this old' thing, starting with "The Gangland Files," a picture-in-picture track which includes production information, trivia and various informational nuggets about the film and its subjects, with slightly longer "Focus Points" sprinkled in among the track. You can watch said points separately, which is largely the bulk of the track, but it is a decent as far as PiP tracks go. Said "Focus Points" can be played individually or as an entire group (15, 46:28), each running about three to four minutes in length and covering their roles and thoughts on the era, and from a historical perspective any surviving members of the real-life Gangster Squad and family members of those no longer available contribute their own thoughts on what occurred during the era. The production's conversion of locations and approaching the costumes of the time are given some attention, and this film's place in similar ones is also covered. These segments in and of themselves are quite good.
Next up, Fleischer provides a commentary for the film, all by his lonesome. From a tonal perspective Fleischer sounds a little drab, but he does put in a fair amount of recollection on the production, and identifying what was computer-enhanced and what was not. He chips in the obligatory raves on the actors he worked with and while there are occasional gaps of silence while he watches the film, the commentary is a solid complement to the film. Another fairly larger feature is "Rogues Gallery," a television-length biographic piece on Cohen narrated by William Devane (46:44). It includes lots of interviews from contemporaries and has a vintage interview or two of Cohen, as his roots, rise to power and demise are discussed and re-enacted. It flirts with moments of cheesiness but is a quality look at the film's antagonist. "Then and Now Locations" (8:03) is just that, with stills illustrating the Los Angeles monuments and includes text descriptions about their importance. "Tough Guys With Style" (4:54) examines the characters by the cast members portraying them, and eight deleted scenes (12:20) round out the extras. Save for THE scene that helps Pena's character in exposition, the rest are forgettable. The package also comes with a standard definition disc (where these grabs come from) and a streamable digital copy of the film via the Ultraviolet service.
Those who made Gangster Squad may have the best intentions, but watching the film left me wondering what exactly they were trying to tell. And after going over the bounty of bonus material, I am left almost angry that this story was done in the 'paint by numbers' manner that they are. The characters are drab, and all the nice camerawork in the world does not mask a screenplay that tells a story that dozens before it have already done. Technically the disc is great and on a supplement perspective almost matches it, but the film is clearly the worst aspect of the bunch.