Gangster Squad is one of those films that seems to have had a rough go of things right as it was set to make its debut. Real-life concerns led the studio to delay the film, cutting a scene in which a theatre is shot up by gangsters. That scene had been in the trailer, so the trailer itself — which of course is the film’s main advertising — was pulled. A few new scenes were filmed, and a new trailer released, but the end result was that a film which had originally been slated for early September — the tail end of summer, still decent blockbuster season — ended up unceremoniously dumped in January, a month notorious for releases that studios have little faith in. Critics have come to have low expectations for January releases (creating a vicious circle if ever there was one), and audiences don’t attend as strongly; whether that’s due to lowered expectations or just the general unpleasantness of leaving the house in January is up for debate, but my money is on the latter.
Its pre-release troubles and delayed release resulted in a poor box office take. It only profited through the worldwide box office, and then not by a large amount. But while it would be easy to look at it and make assumptions on its quality, it’s not truly a bad film.
Gangster Squad tells a fictionalized account of a real-life group of police officers going against organized crime in Los Angeles. Josh Brolin stars as Sergeant O’Mara, one of the most upright members of the force, a man for whom justice, as an abstract concept, is more important than the letter of the law. He’s been under stress in L.A., as much of the town is run by mafioso Mickey Cohen, played by Sean Penn, and making any charges stick has so far proven impossible; without a major smoking gun, the corrupt court system won’t do anything. O’Mara gets his break when the chief of police (Nick Nolte) decides that if the law can’t handle Cohen directly, lawmen can still act. He recruits O’Mara to assemble an officially-unsanctioned squad to go after Cohen’s gang and his businesses. Not to make arrests. Just to make trouble, to make it too difficult for Cohen to maintain his grip on the city.
There’s a little bit of an attempt at emotional depth with O’Mara’s family life and with a romantic affair between one of O’Mara’s men and Cohen’s mistress. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone have a modicum of chemistry, and Brolin is appropriately sombre, but Gangster Squad is not a deep film at heart. While there are ethical concerns at play, the movie really just wants to be a movie about a bunch of tough guys having it out with another bunch of tough guys. And when director Ruben Fleischer just lets it be that, it’s fun to watch. The emotional notes provide a reason for the action, but the action is the reason for the film, and the reason for watching it. And while the guns are blazing, the film is firing on all cylinders.
Had it kept its original release date, it probably would have had a solid outing at the box office. While not a terrific blockbuster, it’s at least passable as a popcorn flick. The attempts at drama may be a bit slow here and there, but overall, the film works.