The term ‘style over substance’ has just been given new meaning in the form of Ruben Fleischer’s Gangster Squad. On paper, this movie looked set to rock the first month of 2013, but then, it was meant to rock back in September before it was relegated to reshoots following the tragic cinema shootings in Aurora, Colorado. It was back to the drawing board for Fleischer and his team. They replaced a cinema with a hotel and just as many people got shot. Hardly seems worth it in the grand scheme of things. But in the grand scheme of things, it didn’t make a blind bit of difference as, cinema or hotel, Gangster Squad is the first ultimately unmemorable film of the year.

Normally, a film such as this (set in a beloved era, full of spills and thrills) can just about get by on the cast, even if the screenplay is nothing to write home about. Gangster Squad is so confused about what it is though, from the outset, that no amount of Sean Penn or Josh Brolin can save it from undeniable forgetability. Or to rephrase; not even the most lavish Ryan Gosling pretty party ever can save it from undeniable forgetability.

The three leads are given nothing to do, and it’s a shame. Behind his wonderful prosthetic nose (his character’s Jewish, don’t you know), Penn’s eyes are violently dead, and his performance is typical of an actor of his calibre. There’s just nothing he says, no matter what the delivery, that you won’t have heard before. And God bless him, he tries. By the end of it all, it might as well just be Penn living out a boyhood fantasy of getting to play the Al Capone-type once in his career.

Brolin is similarly wasted considering his abilities as an actor. As the rugged street cop with heart, John ‘All I know how to do is fight’ O’Mara, Brolin was rightfully cast. As in Penn’s case though, he simply has no out; no way to take the character and the script and exploit himself through it. He punches people, he gets shot at, he does some shooting, he loves his wife and she has a baby in the bath. End of story.

Onto Gosling. He really could have done without this film on his resume, but he comes the closest out of anyone to making anything out of it. For the girls for whom The Place Beyond The Pines will be too exhausting and Only God Forgives too violent, this is the one Ryan Gosling movie they should see this year. He swoons, he croons, he has all the best lines. He wears sweet burgundy suits and plays a character who is actually allowed to express emotion. Another win for him, I guess, but with the aforementioned films still to arrive this year, it’s hard not to assume that come March, his appearance in Gangster Squad will be all but forgotten.

But wait, Emma Stone is also featured as the object of both Penn and Gosling’s affections! Featured is the wrong word, unfortunately, as her character is as cardboard and as flat as anything she will ever do. Not quite as flat however, as Michael Pena’s Navidad. Simply put, he is six-shooter Robert Patrick’s understudy. That’s it. In fact, it would be interesting to find out if he even had a line in the entire film.

The same goes for Anthony Mackie. A nominated actor, he throws a knife in someone’s hand, then does a costume change and disappears completely. Giovanni Ribisi achieves marginally more screentime, but the charm of his initial appearance is cut short when he dons a fedora and becomes as equally boring as the rest of his off-the-books buddies.

Gangster Squad is not terrible, by any means. It’s just not the type of film that you will still be thinking about half an hour after you’ve left the theatre. With all the familiar faces and the tommy guns and the car chases and the tommy guns, it’s hard not to be entertained by what’s in front of you. It’s simply all too ‘on a plate’ to ever survive in a world where people actually rewatch films.


Matthew Smith
Matthew Smith

A bi-product of both the USA and the UK, Matthew has been a film-obsessive since the summer of 1993. He claims that in 2009, he saw a total of 109 films at the cinema. Since 2009, he has been writing for NME film critic Owen Nicholls, and after exploring the intricacies of film analysis, began a BA Hons in Film and Moving Image Production in 2011 at the ripe old age of 25. His favourite film is The Big Lebowski, and his favourite director is Alexander Payne.