GANGSTER SQUAD is a big over-ripe plum of a film. It’s the kind of mid-budget studio flop that we don’t really see any more, where you can almost see a cigar-chomping producer’s thumbprints all over the celluloid: a bunch of disparate crowd-pleasing elements (flashy violence, all-star cast, sharp suits, men-on-a-mission) that execs think will be enough to fuel that crucial opening weekend in and of themselves, which have been slapped together by filmmakers who resolve to worry about populating it with characters, emotion and intrigue at a later date. Or, as is the case with Ruben Fleischer's GANGSTER SQUAD, never.
In fairness, some of GANGSTER SQUAD’s general haphazardness could be put down to Fleischer being forced to reshoot a key scene based around a cinema shoot-out after the tragedy in Aurora. However, the impact of replacing the scene (if you’re going to see it, the newly-shot setpiece is the bit in Chinatown) is fairly irrelevant, because it’s just as inconsequential as everything that surrounds it.
Just about nothing in GANGSTER SQUAD really works. It’s clearly aiming to capture some of the comic-book spirit of Brian DePalma’s THE UNTOUCHABLES, which I’ve never particularly rated despite being a big DePalma apologist, but let me tell you: GANGSTER SQUAD is no UNTOUCHABLES. It’s barely even DICK TRACY, a film it brazenly invites comparisons to mainly by dint of Sean Penn’s staggeringly bad performance as the villainous Mickey Cohen, where like Al Pacino he proves he can’t act his way out of a bad prosthetic, no matter how furiously mugs, twitches and drenches the other actors in spittle.
Not that the others are much cop either (pun intended): Josh Brolin is gruff and unlikable as the leader of the titular squad, and demonstrates none of the charisma that he displays in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, or even MEN IN BLACK 3. I like Ryan Gosling as much as the next straight-but-occasionally-confused male but he stinks up the screen here. His sociopathic man-child schtick was kind of annoying even when it was brilliant in DRIVE; here, coupled with his comically nasal Stevie Wonder by way of Benicio Del Toro in THE USUAL SUSPECTS voice, it’s just flat-out annoying. He doesn’t even have any chemistry with Emma Stone, after they paired together beautifully in CRAZY/STUPID/LOVE.
Needless to say the roles given to a usually excellent supporting cast of Stone, Michael Pena, Robert Patrick and Anthony Mackie are painfully underwritten, and they can do little to save things (although watching Nick Nolte croak incoherently on scree is always time well spent).Only Giovanni Ribisi emerges from the film with any credit, possibly because he’s the only character in the film who isn’t a sadistic maniac.
And here’s the crux of why GANGSTER SQUAD is such a big stupid pudding of a film – the script is awful. It’s obvious (one character may as well be carrying around a sign that says “My Death Will Motivate The Third Act”), cliche-ridden (the all-knowing shoe-shine from POLICE SQUAD! makes a cameo), the attempt to approximate hardboiled film noir dialogue is atrocious (“On the warpath? More like the ‘gimme-more’ path…”), and the heavy emphasis on consequence-free violence is a more than a little disturbing.
This is one of the most sadistically violent films I’ve seen in a long time, and I’ve seen the uncut MANIAC. It’s not that the violence is so gory or brutal it's unpalatable – if anything, I would rather have seen it go even stronger to push it over into the realm of pure exploitation, to really get into the filth of what these awful psychos did and induce that amazing feeling of shock, repulsion, excitement, and repulsion at your own excitement that the best exploitation gives you. But this is a big studio film, so it never wants to stray into areas that would be genuinely risky: instead it just shows you dull, terminally long scenes of people getting savagely punched in the face over and over again, and then expects you to cheer at the end. Fleischer's box of directorial tricks, which he appears to have acquired on a semi-permanent loan from Guy Ritchie, don’t help to alleviate the queasily incoherent tone.
I find it ironic that GANGSTER SQUAD was so drastically altered in the wake of Aurora, seeing as Fleischer had no qualms exploiting a real life death for comedic purposes in 30 MINUTES OR LESS, then makes a film like GANGSTER SQUAD that takes an approach to an extremely violent and bloody chapter of real American history that is the very definition of sensationalist. Ultimately, though, that’s an afterthought; while Fleischer has demonstrated himself to be a little morally irresponsible, the main crime he has to answer for with GANGSTER SQUAD is simply that he's made a really crummy movie.