Some might argue last summer's horrific mass shooting in an Aurora, Colorado movie theater sealed the fate of 'Gangster Squad.' It forced director Ruben Fleischer - in the interest of sympathy and good taste - to delete, re-imagine, and reshoot an eerily similar sequence in his film, which, in turn, forced his studio to push back the movie's release date from September to January (never a desirable time for a high-profile premiere). Yet one look at this misguided amalgamation of other, better movies ('L.A. Confidential,' 'The Untouchables,' and 'Public Enemies,' to name but a few) and it's abundantly apparent 'Gangster Squad' was a doomed venture from the get-go, predestined for box office failure and public apathy. Too cartoonishly violent for these volatile times and too poorly constructed and cliché-ridden to capture the fancy of even the most passionate genre devotee, 'Gangster Squad' is an empty shell of a film, a production that looks great on the surface, but has no heart or soul. Even such magnetic personalities as Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Nick Nolte, and Giovanni Ribisi can't jumpstart its sluggish engine or mask its dearth of originality.
I love the era of the 1940s, and 'Gangster Squad' recreates it well. Fleischer possesses a keen eye, and though his directorial talents may be limited, he knows how to fill a frame. Only a good script, however, can infuse life into a film, and Will Beall's screenplay lacks the gravitas to draw us in. Packed with stilted and stylized tough talk and preciously constructed quips, the dialogue tries to replicate the snappy exchanges that distinguish the classic Warner Bros gangster yarns of yore, yet it does so at the expense of character development. All the roles are cardboard cutouts ripped from the comic books, and watching them move around the movie's canvas like chess pieces on a board isn't very stimulating. Nor are the violent action sequences liberally peppering the plot, which provide a welcome jolt, but don't propel the story forward and are merely gratuitous displays designed to pad the running time and appeal to our basest instincts.
'The Untouchables' West' might have been a better title for this shameless rip-off that chronicles the efforts of a vigilante police unit to shut down the growing syndicate of cocky crime boss Mickey Cohen (Penn) in post-World War II Los Angeles. Much like the band of Chicago treasury agents enlisted to nab Al Capone, the ragtag group of L.A. cops led by the square-jawed Sgt. John O'Mara (Brolin) includes the cynical Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Gosling) - who enters into a dangerous liaison with Cohen's sexy, sassy moll-du-jour, Grace Faraday (Stone) - a streetwise African-American beat cop (Anthony Mackie), a drawling Texan sharpshooter (Robert Patrick) and his Latino sidekick (Michael Pena), and a brainiac surveillance expert (Ribisi). With the blessing of police chief William Parker (Nick Nolte), this model-of-diversity troupe wages war against Cohen and his cronies, employing the "they send one of ours to the hospital, we send one of theirs to the morgue" style of justice. A little romance, a little domestic strife, and a lot of blood-letting follow, but unfortunately not much complexity or depth knocks this speeding juggernaut off its predictable path.
Whenever I see a film is "inspired" by actual events, I know history is going to take a beating, and that's exactly what happens here. Cohen was a real-life figure, and if you watch the biographical profile of him that's included on this disc, you'll discover he's far from the barbaric thug this film purports him to be. Ruthless, ambitious, greedy, and cruel? Sure. But Penn, his snarling face so fully buried under thick layers of prosthetics he looks as if he's about to embark on a night of trick-or-treating, turns Cohen into a caricature, a cartoon bad guy better suited for the cast of 'Dick Tracy.' Like Capone, Cohen was a businessman who was eventually nabbed for income tax evasion, but to distance itself from 'The Untouchables,' 'Gangster Squad' concocts a more elaborate, sordid tale to spur Cohen's downfall, and though it's entertaining, I don't see the need to stray so far from the truth. Cohen is a fascinating man. Tell his story; don't make one up and pin it on him like a bum rap.
'Gangster Squad' boasts a stellar cast, but even the best actors sound and look silly when they spout stylized dialogue that doesn't ring true. Of course, understanding anything Nolte says is practically impossible; the man's voice is so gravelly, you'd swear he was gargling marbles. And try as they might, Gosling and Stone can't rekindle the crackling chemistry they shared in 'Crazy Stupid Love' because their lackluster scenes won't allow it. Both do what they can with the material, but it's beneath them. While Brolin comes across well in a tailor-made role and the colorful supporting cast fits snugly into the film's framework, it's Penn who brings the enterprise down, as he tries too hard to channel his inner De Niro and Pacino. A far better choice to play Cohen would have been Danny DeVito, who resembles the mobster physically and might have given a more nuanced, believable performance.
As B-movie pulp, 'Gangster Squad' succeeds, and I can see it enjoying a decent shelf life as a secret guilty pleasure. Yet with all the talent involved and fertile subject matter, I certainly expected more. Like its central villain, 'Gangster Squad' is rough, flashy, and flaunts a fair amount of conceit, but underneath all the bravado, it's pitifully small-time.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Gangster Squad' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard eco-friendly case inside a glossy sleeve. The 50GB dual-layer disc contains a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 video transfer and a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. Once inserted into the player, a promo for Ultraviolet Digital Copy and a preview for 'The Great Gatsby' precede the static menu with music.
Sleek and luscious best describes the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer of 'Gangster Squad,' which honors the film's stylized look, period locales, and sumptuous settings. Not a hint of grain is visible in this silky presentation, and no specks, marks, or scratches of any kind sully the pristine source material. If it weren't for the stilted script and Penn's over-the-top portrayal, it would be easy to dive in and get lost in 'Gangster Squad'; that's how well the visuals are rendered. Contrast and clarity are superb; both daytime and nocturnal scenes exude an intoxicating glow, aided by warm hues and inky blacks that gently ensnare the viewer like the ever-present swirling cigarette smoke on screen. Much of the action takes place at night or in dingy interiors, yet definition remains stellar, and no crush or noise creeps into the picture.
Colors are beautifully saturated. The deep red of Stone's evening gown, the sheen of her auburn hair, and the muted tones of Gosling's classy suits all add lovely accents to the frame, while the gleaming chrome of the vintage cars, crystal blue California skies, and yellow sparks bursting out of the tommy guns also punch up the film's sexy look. Close-ups are sparingly employed, but possess fine levels of detail, and fleshtones remain stable, natural, and true throughout.
I noticed a slight bit of break-up on a couple of tracking shots, but no major issues of banding or aliasing afflict the image, and no enhancements such as edge sharpening or noise reduction are present either. 'Gangster Squad' certainly seduced me with its reference-quality visuals, but sadly its story left me as cold as one of the film's numerous dead bodies.
Like the rapid-fire pulses of the omnipresent tommy guns, this is one active track. Impressively mixed and filled with surround activity, the disc's DTS-HD 5.1 audio provides a completely immersive sonic experience, with perfectly balanced highs and lows, plenty of weighty bass, and not a hint of distortion. Dialogue can be a bit muffled at times, largely due to the mumbling malaise that afflicts most of the actors, but that's the only real deficiency of this high-quality lossless track.
Strong stereo separation across the front channels lends an expansive feel to mundane scenes, while delicate ambient effects and bits of scoring are liberally sprinkled among the rears, enveloping us in the on-screen action. Of course, during the gun battles, the soundscape explodes with crisp accents and distinct multi-channel positioning, bringing blistering power and an intense excitement to each sequence. From the blast of each round to the ping of empty shells bouncing on the floor, this track knows when to go full throttle and when to back off. Bass frequencies are especially strong, adding welcome depth and heaviness to the dire proceedings, while Steve Jablonsky's music score sounds great. Whether it's complementing a car chase or providing a sense of sinister foreboding, its tones are bright, full, and beautifully well modulated.
Like the video, this audio track is as clean as a whistle, and will impress both avid and casual listeners. It certainly makes this often dreary flick more fun.
Only one flimsy supplement is shared between the DVD and high-def releases. All the other extras are Blu-ray exclusives (see below).
'Gangster Squad' tries its best to recreate a volatile period in Los Angeles history, and though this violent, action-packed shoot-'em-up certainly stokes the senses, it never stimulates the brain or stirs the soul. The cliché-ridden script, a cartoonish performance from Sean Penn, heaping helpings of violence, and historically inaccurate plotlines all conspire to sabotage what could have been an incisive, nostalgic underworld portrait. Director Ruben Fleischer possesses a marvelous visual sense and most of the acting is darn good, but neither component can compensate for the poorly developed material that simply makes us yearn for the classic gangster sagas of yore. Spectacular video and audio transfers go a long way toward lifting this flimsy film to a higher plane, and a solid supplemental package lends some heft to the release. Rent 'Gangster Squad' for its presentation, not its plot, and if you can't stomach violence, take a pass altogether. This is a very good disc, but a clunker of a flick, proving once again even a top-flight cast can't salvage a misguided project.