Click an image to view Blu-ray screenshot with 1080p resolution.
Despite its all-star cast, shoot-'em-up action, and Hollywood noir trappings, Gangster Squad is a largely forgettable - if entertaining - motion picture. Set in Los Angeles right after World War II, Gangster Squad follows the lawmen who dared to fight organized crime, led by gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn, acting up raging storm), and keep the mob out of L.A. Josh Brolin leads the Gangster Squad as Sgt. John O'Mara and is joined by Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) and officers played by Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, Michael Peña and Robert Patrick. The set design, costumes and old Hollywood look are spot on, and Director Ruben Fleischer, of Zombieland fame, keeps things moving at a brisk, brutal clip. The film's impact is lessened, however, because Gangster Squad is more Sin City than Goodfellas; hollow scenes of glitz and glam with larger-than-life villains and pulp-novel heroes never in danger of sleeping with the fish.
Cohen aims to bring Chicago's organized crime racket to Los Angeles and sets up an empire controlling casinos, whorehouses, and a Western Union-esque wire service. Police Chief Bill Parker (Nick Nolte) taps O'Mara to lead a team that will hit Cohen's assets and stop him from controlling the streets with violence and intimidation. O'Mara's pregnant wife is skeptical of this high-risk assignment, and picks the other members of the squad herself. Cynical Wooters signs on expecting the Gangster Squad to fail, but Det. Coleman Harris (Mackie) jumps at the chance to stop Cohen from further littering his neighborhood with heroin and junkies. Max Kennard (Patrick) and his Native American partner Navidad (Peña) also join the cause, and Conway Keeler's (Ribisi) wire-tapping expertise puts a bug into Cohen's house. These upstanding men of justice are the characters of classic noir; all tough-guy swagger and boozy breathed vigilance, with bumpy pasts full of violence and love lost. Cohen is more caricature than reality, and Penn's boxing wise guy is similar to the real Cohen in name and spirit only.
Fleischer's direction is slick but steady, impressive considering his previous two films were broad comedies. I'm a sucker for noir, be it actual or an homage, and Gangster Squad cleverly recreates the sweaty, colorful streets of 1949 Los Angeles. Important gun battles are staged in Chinatown and the lobby of the Park Plaza Hotel, and Fleischer's digital photography captures every muzzle blast and explosion in hyper-stylized clarity. The Chinatown scene replaces a theater shootout cut following last summer's Aurora, Ohio, movie massacre, but you'd never know the original scene was replaced. The film's end credits unspool over postcard images of L.A., and Gangster Squad embodies this slightly aggrandized look. The Pacific Ocean is glittering blue, the late-afternoon sun burns blistering orange, and the nightclub lights invite guests in various shades of neon.
Stacking the cast as Fleischer does necessitates big actors in little roles. Emma Stone mostly chews scenery as femme fatale Grace Faraday, a woman owned by Cohen but in love with playboy Wooters. Nolte's gravel and cigarettes voice is the Captain's best asset, but Nolte's presence in the film is hardly substantial. Gangster Squad sticks to the surface for character development - a good imitation of classic noir - and motivations are straightforward. O'Mara wants to matter after the War, Keeler has a wife and kids to support, and the others love Los Angeles enough to risk their lives to defend it from Cohen. Penn certainly overacts here, spitting out gangster virtues and profanity like sunflower seeds at a baseball game. This isn't really a criticism, as Penn lights up the screen in a way not found in most other scenes. Sure, Gangster Squad is fine popcorn entertainment, but considering the talent involved it's disappointing the film is so easily forgotten.
Warner Brothers provides an attractive 2.40:1/1080p/AVC-encoded high-definition transfer for Gangster Squad. Although Warner Brothers uses smaller bitrates than many major studios, this release continues to show that size isn't everything. The digital image is sharp and detailed throughout, and most scenes display incredible depth. The sunbaked streets of Los Angeles are full of perfectly saturated reds and oranges, and the neon blues and greens of Slapsy Maxie's nightclub never bleed. Black levels are strong, and Gangster Squad makes good use of natural light and shadow. A few scenes are purposely dark, but even heavy shadows don't destroy the image's inherent detail. I noticed no issues with compression artifacts and only one instance of minor shimmering.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master soundtrack is loud and aggressive without overwhelming quieter, dialogue-heavy scenes. The movie features plenty of bang-bang action, and this mix positively rattles the floor. The LFE booms alongside gunfire and explosions, and bullets whiz through the rear speakers. Dialogue is crystal clear, whether directional or from the center channel, and is layered nicely amid effects and score. The whole experience is completely immersive, and those looking for surround effects will find plenty to enjoy here. The disc also includes French, Spanish and Portuguese 5.1 Dolby Digital tracks and English SDH, French and Spanish subtitles.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
Warner Brothers releases Gangster Squad in its typical "combo pack" form. This two-disc set includes the Blu-ray, a DVD copy of the film and a code to redeem an UltraViolet digital copy. The discs are packed in a Blu-ray eco-case, which is wrapped in a glossy slipcover with artwork that really captures the film's flashy neo-noir vibe. Unlike the fluffy features of many recent WB titles, Gangster Squad packs a host of interesting content:
- The Gangland Files (HD) - This picture-in-picture track plays during the film and includes interviews, on-set footage, trivia, branching Focus Points material, and photos. There are quite a few gaps in the presentation, but there's a lot of good information here that's fairly well integrated.
- The Set Up: Focus Points (46:28/HD) - These fifteen Focus Points cover all aspects of the production, and, when played together, make a decent making-of documentary. Individual segments include: "The Real Story;" "Josh Brolin on O'Mara;" "One Continuous Long Shot;" "Fashion of the '40s;" "Ryan & Emma Reunited;" "Emma Stone on Grace;" "The Real Mickey Cohen;" "Ryan Gosling on Wooters;" "The Real Gangster Squad;" "The Real Locations;" "Nick Nolte on Chief Parker;" "Inside Slapsy Maxie's;" "Ryan & Emma On Set;" "Bringing Back Gangsters;" and "Park Place."
- Commentary with Director Ruben Fleischer - The film's captain provides an informative if slightly dry commentary. Fleischer recounts filming on location, recreating a period-appropriate Los Angeles and working with the A-list cast. Unless I missed it, Fleischer doesn't address the original theater shootout scene cut from the film, which is kind of disappointing.
- Then and Now Locations (8:03/HD) - This piece includes modern and vintage images of the film's many locations.
- Tough Guys with Style (4:54/HD) - The filmmakers and cast discuss the '40s look and feel of the film.
- Deleted Scenes with Optional Introduction by Director Ruben Fleischer (12:20/HD) - Several deleted scenes are included, but, again, no mention of the trimmed theater gunfight.
- Rogues Gallery: Mickey Cohen (46:44/SD) - A nice inclusion; this piece tackles the real Mickey Cohen, who eventually wound up in Alcatraz for tax evasion.
Flashy, violent imitation noir, Gangster Squad is an entertaining look at the crackdown on organized crime in 1940s Los Angeles. Sean Penn is entertaining as the wildly gesticulating wise guy Mickey Cohen, who wanted to control the City of Angels like a Chicago mob boss. Josh Brolin leads Ryan Gosling, Giovanni Ribisi and Michael Peña into battle against Cohen, and Gangster Squad becomes more pulp fiction than gangster lore. Less memorable than it ought to be, Gangster Squad is still worth watching, and the extras-packed Blu-ray is Recommended.
William lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.