With an all-star cast and a promising premise, Gangster Squad should have been a surefire hit. Instead it’s a complete misfire.

Ruben Fleischer may want to start worrying about his next move. He burst onto the scene with the comedic, apocalyptic Zombieland , which immediately cemented him as someone to watch. His follow up, the similar action-comedy 30 Minutes or Less was amusing but mostly a misfire. Many hoped it was just the classic sophomore slump. Unfortunately, Gangster Squad proves that’s not the case. Stacked with a cast of uniformly great actors and a premise that recalls many of Hollywood’s greatest films, Fleisher is unable to put any sort of stamp on it. Aside from squandering a great cast, especially Josh Brolin as the squad’s leader Sgt. John O’Mara, it ends up having glimpses of hope but is woefully derivative. It offers nothing new in the cops-and-gangsters department, a genre that has been rightfully lacking since, at least, 1997’s L.A. Confidential. Instead of attempting something daring, Fleischer settles for a middle of the road film that is sorely lacking in the relaxed-yet-tense vibe that made Zombieland great.

Debuting after a fall and winter season that saw many films top the two hour mark, Gangster Squad manages to stay slightly under and still feel as if much is missing. Characters are brought in and out at convenience, especially the underutilized Mirielle Enos as O’Mara’s wife, and just as the film begins to grasp a scene, or a character, it cuts and moves on. Fleischer obviously wanted to create something that was quick and clean, but with so many characters, including the six squad members and Enos, as wel as Emma Stone as a dame caught between the bad guy and the good guy, some breathing room would have done the film some good. Fleischer borrows from the graphic novel trend with his digital cinematography, which is also distracting and ugly at times, and giving the overall feel of the film an authentic-yet-modern look.

Sean Penn is the brightest spot as villain Mickey Cohen, the ex-boxer who’s taken over L.A. with is back room dealings through sheer force, and becomes the target of the take down by the squad. But the film’s tone is so out of whack –is it a serious drama, a lighthearted action flick, etc.?– he doesn’t have a true adversary in any of the squad members, especially their leader, Josh Brolin, who’s blander than white bread. The other issue is that his other combatants are a group of six men who, aside from Brolin and Ryan Gosling as Sgt. Jerry Wooters and Emma Stone’s love interest, are barely developed. Giovanni Ribisi’s Detective Conway Keeler is the brains behind the braun and Ribisi’s talent shines through but his character is only halfway developed as a family man who wants to prove to his son he can do good. The other three, Anthonie Mackie as Detective Rocky Washington, Robert Patrick as the sharpshooting Detective Max Kennard and Michael Peña as Detective Navidad Ramirez, and Kennard’s lackey, are wholly wasted.

On the surface, there’s enough to like but once the story gets going it’s apparent there’s nothing underneath. It’s a string of scenes that barely culminate in any sort of satisfying conclusion. By now Fleischer should be growing as a filmmaker, not declining. As mentioned earlier, enough shines through that illustrates why Fleischer has become a name despite being one for three but it also feels like he acted as a hired gun, filming a first draft without injecting any of himself into it. If he wants to be a true auteur, he needs to take risks and he needs to have a feel for the overall piece he’s making. Right now it’s looking like he may be a one-hit-wonder.

Rating: 3 out of 5

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