Sometimes, by design or by chance, a film will capture lightning in a bottle by holding a mirror to a currently raging political issue. Gangster Squad, the new crime noir loosely based on a real-life, clandestine police unit built to fight organized crime in post-WWII Los Angeles, had the chance to be just such a movie.
Originally slated for release in September 2012, Gangster Squad was delayed after the theater shooting in Aurora, Colo., earlier in the summer. The original cut contained a scene in which gangsters let loose with machine guns in a crowded movie theater, and Warner Brothers wisely decided to re-shoot the scene in a less sensitive location.
So, while it was a bizarre coincidence that thrust Gangster Squad squarely into the frenzied national conversation regarding gun control, an arguably even more bizarre coincidence lined the film up to be the Mother of All Hyper-Timely Politically Resonant Movies. That second coincidence was the recent declaration from the National Rifle Association's Wayne LaPierre, in the wake of the school shootings in Newtown, Conn., that the best way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun—a proposition that is, in essence, the moral fulcrum of Gangster Squad. Not in the vigilante, Die Hard sense, mind you, but in the sense of an officially sanctioned, desperation-driven societal response to unchecked violence. Putting aside the merits (or lack thereof) of the argument, and recognizing that no movie can be—and maybe shouldn't even try to be—the definitive statement on an issue of this complexity, it's undeniable that Gangster Squad hit the lottery in terms of timing, inconvenient re-shoot notwithstanding.
But there's just one small problem. This movie isn't nearly good enough to matter even in a "Should I pay 10 bucks at the theater or wait for Netflix?" way, let alone in a "Whoa, that made me think about a big thing in a different way" kinda way. Simply put, Gangster Squad is a vapid mess of a film.
L.A. Times journalist Paul Lieberman's seven-part 2008 series, "Tales From the Gangster Squad," served as the source material for the script by screenwriter Will Beall. According to IMDB, this is Beall's first feature project, and his only previous credits are a handful of TV scripts for the show "Castle." Sadly, Beall's inexperience leaks in a big way. The characters are essentially cardboard cutouts, with even the slimmest attempt at backstory sabotaged by cliché. The dialogue is laughable, caught in an odd no-man's land between stylized pulp and earnest exposition. And the story arc is so banal, so predictable in the bad-Hollywood way, it's hard to believe that any of the events and characters ever had any roots in real life. Man, what a plum gig this must have been for a young writer knocking on the door of Big Hollywood—and what a colossal whiff in the face of such opportunity.
The execution of such an immature script fell to another young filmmaker, director Ruben Fleischer. Fleischer scored a minor hit with 2009's Zombieland, but was clearly not ready for a project of this magnitude. The feel of the film is schizophrenic, ranging aimlessly from classic noir to Goodfellas-like uberviolence, cartoonish fight scenes and Matrix-y gun battles.
As a result, Gangster Squad is a colossal waste of money (a reported $60 million production budget) and talent (an ensemble cast that includes heavy hitters Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone). Lieberman has since expanded his newspaper series into a book, Gangster Squad: Covert Cops, the Mob, and the Battle for Los Angeles. I haven't read it, but I suggest that if you're going to spend any money on this story, go with the book. It's got to be better than the film.
And as much as I wish the movie could have risen to the occasion and contributed something meaningful to the gun control debate, here's to hoping that this particular golden opportunity never arises again.
Gangster Squad continues at the Carmike 12, Pharoahplex and Entertainer.