Gangster Squad, a star-studded period drama based on the LAPD's real-life 1940s offensive against gangster Mickey Cohen, had garnered a small amount of Oscar buzz in the weeks leading up to its original planned release in September 2012. (Watch a trailer for Gangster Squad below.) But the film was delayed in the wake of the Aurora, Colo., movie theater shootings so a climactic shootout — which originally took place in a theater — could be rewritten. (The scene now takes place in the streets of Chinatown.) And there's yet another twist to the film's long road to the big screen: Now that Gangster Squad is finally here, most critics seem to think it should have stayed on the shelf. Among the "Top Critics" listed on Rotten Tomatoes, the film has earned a scathing 12 percent positive reviews. What went wrong with Gangster Squad? Here, 5 complaints:
1. The film wastes its talented cast
Gangster Squad's massive ensemble cast includes Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, and Emma Stone. But the characters they play "are hardly more dimensional than caricatures, identifiable by one main trait and barely individualized beyond that," says Todd McCarthy at The Hollywood Reporter. "These are all good actors, but aside from Brolin and Gosling, they're barely given any special moments of their own to make a mark here."
2. It's too violent
"From an early scene in which a man is chained to two cars and torn in half to the climactic machine-gun battle at a hotel," Gangster Squad is "an exceedingly violent movie," says Mick LaSalle at The San Francisco Chronicle. Director Ruben Fleischer packs the film with blood and mayhem at the expense of the film's characters and story, which fail to pop off the screen in the same way.
3. It's poorly written
Gangster Squad is the first film written by Will Beall, a former L.A. homicide detective who has also written for ABC mystery series Castle. But Beall's script is enormously overwritten, says Peter Howell at the Toronto Star, packing in so much "sardonic period dialogue" that "even a mere shoeshine boy sounds as if he's auditioning for a Dragnet remake." Beall's corny dialogue — which actually includes a scene in which Penn's Mickey Cohen tells a thug "you know the drill" before producing a giant electric drill — is sometimes laughable, but never in the way that Beall probably wants it to be.
4. Gangster Squad cribs from older, better gangster movies
The movie "doesn't have an original idea in its dizzy, derivative head," says Peter Travers at Rolling Stone. Instead of forging its own trail, the film settles into a pattern of "ripping off real-deal gangster movies" like L.A. Confidential, The Untouchables, Bugsy, and Chinatown. As a pale, pale imitation of those films, says A.O. Scott at The New York Times, Gangster Squad fails to justify its existence "beyond the parasitic urge to feed on the memories of other, better movies."
5. It's not historically accurate
Gangster Squad isn't a good movie, but there's a much uglier and more troubling problem at the film's center, argues Andrew O'Hehir at Salon: It offers "a complete whitewashing of one of the most vicious and racist paramilitary organizations in American history: The Los Angeles Police Department." The film "adds a faint patina of 21st-century political correctness" by throwing both an African-American and a Latino cop into the mix, directly countering the city's "near-Jim Crow level of segregation" and the LAPD's "long and poisonous relationship with the black and Latino communities" in the late 1940s. As it attempts to justify "the endless litany of crimes committed by police officers," the film quickly becomes "lazy and mendacious soft propaganda."
Consensus: Instead of seeing Gangster Squad, stay home and re-watch one of Hollywood's classic gangster films, which offer both more intelligence and more entertainment.