Gangster Squad Review: Sean Penn sadly transitions into over-the-top status

Sean Penn in Gangster Squad

Sean Penn. Ryan Gosling. Josh Brolin. Emma Stone. Nick Nolte. Anthony Mackie. Giovanni Ribisi. Robert Patrick. Michael Pena.

This cast placed in a gangster film intrigued me enough to see Ruben Fleischer’s (Zombieland, 30 Seconds or Less) latest film, Gangster Squad. Unfortunately, while the film was never boring in its crisp 113 minutes, it wasn’t exactly a quality piece of cinema, either. Fleischer and writer Will Beall (who adapted Paul Lieberman’s Tales from the Gangster Squad) are largely to blame for this, but — and I know this might be blasphemy to some but it’s true — the person who’s as much to blame as anyone is… Sean Penn.

Now, we know Penn is a legendary actor and his great performances and films — Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Mystic River, Dead Man Walking, Milk, and 21 Grams to name a few — can never be taken away from him. But as 1950’s Los Angeles gangster Mickey Cohen, Penn disappointingly began to tread into┬áthe territory of over-the-top acting reminiscent of the great Al Pacino wading through films like The Godfather Part III, Heat (though his antics in this scene are genuinely amusing in their absurdity), and the grossly forgettable The Recruit based on his reputation alone.

I found myself thoroughly annoyed with every aspect of Penn’s performance, and throughout the movie, almost feeling bad about it because of how much I admired his performances in the aforementioned films. But his voice was ridiculous, his mannerisms unreal, and his yelling borderline comical. One might think that since he was so annoying, he played the role well — after all, he was the film’s primary antagonist. However, that just wasn’t the case here. The acting — not the character — was what was most detestable. Again, it feels ludicrous to be bashing someone as great as Sean Penn, but there’s just no getting around it.

Gangster Squad also suffered from weak writing and uncertain direction. The historically-based story (which was conveyed in a thoroughly exaggerated manner) was intriguing and there was opportunity to really delve more into some potentially interesting characters, particularly the ones who comprised the eponymous “squad” assembled to bring down Cohen and his empire. Instead, however, we ended up with a film focused on action scenes and shock-value violence at the expense of compelling characters.

Josh Brolin’s character, Sgt. John O’Mara, was probably the most well-developed in the film, but even he was characterized only as the prototypical hard-nosed, unrelenting, bad-ass cop. Ryan Gosling’s character, Sgt. Jerry Wooters, was portrayed as something of a ladies’ man but we learned nothing about his history as a detective. His romance with Grace Faraday (Emma Stone) seemed forced; it was rapid and essentially unexplainable but that didn’t seem to matter to the filmmakers. Gosling’s character did seem to have some interesting aspects, particularly with how emotionally charged he became after (SPOILER ALERT) witnessing a teen’s death, but the film never tried to explore these types of things further. The rest of the gangster squad was treated with absolutely no character development whatsoever.

Director Ruben Fleischer got it right a few years ago with Zombieland — the violence was indeed over-the-top but he and the rest of the filmmakers always knew it was, and the action and comedy were perfectly balanced. In Gangster Squad, however, he seemed unsure of where he was going; the storylines seemed more serious and dramatic in nature but too many times he tried to be Quentin Tarantino in showing us graphic violence to enhance the film, but instead, this approach detracted from it. It’s a hard balance to strike; Tarantino always gets it right (and still has great characters, but he’s a god) and Fleischer nailed it with Zombieland, but he generally failed with the cheesy and annoying violence in Gangster Squad.

I cannot say I was overly shocked by the poor character development and uneven direction, but I can say that I was shocked about Penn’s ludicrous performance. Now, I would be wrong to say that all exaggerated performances in action dramas are bad, because there are some, like this one, that are awesome, but most of the time this rule holds true. It’s just that usually you’ll find them in some crappy B-action flick, not one with such a huge cast and such high ambitions. This context and Penn’s standing as one of the great actors of our time is what made his performance the most disappointing part of Gangster Squad and the lasting impression I will have of it. Thankfully, though, I can always go back and watch some of Penn’s good films so this isn’t the lasting impression I have of him.


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My name is Tom Dianora. I'm a 23-year-old yuppie (though not like Patrick Bateman) living in LA. I have a passion for film that I like to tap into through writing.

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  1. Amanda Duke

    Been lot of controversy around Sean Penn’s performance in GS. He is one of the best actors in Hollywood and I agree with some of his political views too, great shame that he is receiving bad press over this.

  2. Wasn’t expecting much when I walked in to this, and didn’t come out with much either. Everybody won.

  3. Kate Blinsmon

    Sean Penn is a brilliant actor but he was not the right man for this role.

    Quite frankly, for me, he ruined the whole movie.

  4. Cool Reviews Rule

    This was surprisingly OK considering all the terrible reviews it got

  5. The over-the-top acting may be an attempt to compensate for poor writing.

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