Gangster Squad is a sleek and stylish 1940’s Los Angeles period piece/shoot em’ up filled with terrific actors, great costumes, elaborately ornate sets, and wall to wall action. Now, if only the producers had invested as much in an actual story and some three dimensional characters as they did in the carnage and aesthetics, we might have really had something worth talking about here. As it is, what, judging from the ingredients, could have been a film on par with such gangster luminaries as ‘The Untouchables’ or ‘Road to Perdition’ finds itself more on equal footing with the late night fare of basic cable flicks such as 1991’s ‘Mobsters’ starring a young Christian Slater and Patrick Dempsey… Don’t remember that movie? Don’t fret too much. People twenty years from now won’t remember Gangster Squad, either.
Furthermore, when the most talked about scene in a movie is one that isn’t even actually in the final cut of said movie, you know you may be in for a bumpy ride. For those who do not know this movie was heavily re-written and re-shot after the tragedy in Aurora where a coward and a maniac named James Holmes barged into a screening of The Dark Knight Rises and murdered twelve people (injuring scores more) who were simply trying to enjoy a weekend at the movies. Before that tragedy Gangster Squad had contained a scene with men in trench coats emptying automatic rifles into a movie theater in a similar fashion. I know it would have been too controversial, and I understand and respect the decision they made, but I still wish the movie had taken the braver approach and left the scene in there. Why let that homicidal coward dictate the content of your film? (That’s not a rhetorical question so much as an outraged exasperation..) It’s hard to say without having access to what the film would have looked like before, but it very well could be the 13th victim in the Aurora Theatre Massacre was none other than the movie Gangster Squad itself.
Now, onto the particulars. Sean Penn is a real hoot as the lead villain here doing his best send up of Marlon Brando in The Godfather. He has a constant half smirk half scowl etched on his face and speaks in a tone of voice that would fit in right at home in a James Cagney gangster movie from the 1930s or 40s. He plays the big mob boss, Mickey Cohen, who according to the film, at the time has a strangle hold on the entire city of LA. He owns all the cops, the newspapers, and all the hot night spots of course. But, all that being said, life is not all glitz and glam as he is currently having some trouble keeping other busybody gangsters from the east out of his territory.
In the role of his chief adversary is Josh Brolin, who definitely lives up to the task of being a leading man here, and who looks quite good and natural in the role of a hard boiled take no prisoners kind of pulp fiction detective. His character, Sergeant John O’Mara, is basically a cross between Dirty Harry and Dick Tracy. He’s one of the city’s small handful of honest cops, and a grizzled veteran of Second World War who, after being given the go ahead by the city’s police chief (played by Nick Nolte, who may or may not remember having participated in this film) starts waging war directly on Cohen by any means necessary. I’ve enjoyed Brolin’s work in most of the films I’ve seen him in, with the most notable one being his turn in ‘No Country For Old Men’ so his inclusion here definitely had me optimistic going into this.
O’Mara, with the help of his wife, played by Mireille Enos in one of those thankless roles where she gets to be a worrisome nag (although a beautiful one) the entire movie, puts together an elite squad to aid him in his battle. There’s Robert Patrick as Max Kennard, an aging Gunslinger type who is itching for one last showdown. He brings a young Hispanic officer (Michael Peña ) with him to the squad, because said officer won’t stop following him around like a lost puppy. Grizzled and ornery as he may be, he still has his fanclub you see. Also along for the ride are Anthony Mackie who plays Officer Coleman Harris, a good shot, and a fair hand with a knife when needed, and Giovanni Ribisi plays Conwell Keeler, the “brains” of the operation. He is basically the guy who knows how to rig up a wiretapping device for this movie’s purposes… He is shown in a few touching scenes playing with his kids and spending time with his adoring wife, which, if you know your generic action movie character cues for secondary characters, should tell you all you need to know about his other purpose here.
Ryan Gosling, whom I have not seen much of before this movie but who performs well enough, plays a troubled young cop named Jerry Wooters. His character is kind of torn between doing the right thing and joining in the fight against Mikey Cohen and company, or just going with the flow and enjoying his exotic playboy lifestyle while letting Cohen and his kind do their own thing so long as they stay out of his hair, so naturally we will need a plot device of some sort to get him from Point A to Point B so he too can participate in the gratuitous gunplay. Enter the sultry redhead Emma Stone, one of the fast rising starlets right now. She plays Grace Faraday, the main girlfriend/trophy object of Mickey Cohen. Stone is very believable in the role as she has a good mix of the innocent little girl caught up in something way over her head, and of the glamorous would be bad girl as well. She is also a perfect fit for a movie like this with her curvy good looks and her classic Hollywood dough eyes straight out of the 1940s. Stone is really easy to fall for here, and so of course, Officer Jerry Wooters does just that.
Everyone in the movie appears to be having a good time with themselves. There’s a heap of homage paid to classic gangster period pieces, and overall a lot of dopey one liners that sometimes charm and other times just produce deeply felt groans. Everything is so polished and glossy looking this whole movie seems like a graphic novel at times. As said, there was plenty of potential here, but Gangster Squad mostly just squanders it. The movie veers between serious moral story, a ridiculous spoof, and a generic brainless shoot em’ up. It’s not without its charms, but if you’re looking for something that offers something besides surface level attractions, you’re looking at the wrong picture.
Gangster Squad gets a two out of five: DECENT.