By Marty Mulrooney
Gangster Squad is a period crime action film directed by Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland). Loosely based upon a true story, the film follows an elite unit of LAPD officers and detectives known as the ‘Gangster Squad’, whose sole mission it is to drive the gangster known as Mickey Cohen out of Los Angeles. The ensemble cast features Sean Penn as Cohen, with Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Robert Patrick, Michael Peña, Anthony Mackie and Giovanni Ribisi starring as the cops determined to take him down.
When we are first introduced to Sergeant John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), an Irish-American Word War II veteran, he is shown battering several thugs who were about to rape a young woman in a hotel room. The scene is set up well, but the action is slightly disconcerting when it does arrives – the almost ‘comic book’ style fist fighting would undoubtedly feel much more at home in a violent superhero film such as Watchmen or Kick-Ass than it does in 1940s Los Angeles.
Yet Gangster Squad certainly looks the part. It’s an undeniably gorgeous film, from the sharp costume design right down to the intricately detailed sets. When Sergeant Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) strolls into a club like he owns the place, you’ll be as much impressed by the scenery as by the character’s non-aggressive swagger. It probably isn’t very accurate when you look closer, but for a moment you’ll be transported over half a century back in time.
In this sense the film often gets away with being larger than life – but then the wafer-thin plot will raise its ugly head and drag it back down again. When Chief Bill Parker (a grizzled Nick Nolte) instructs O’Mara to put together a team and dismantle Mickey Cohen’s criminal empire, he encapsulates the plot of the entire film in a nutshell. There is no real plan. There are no twists or turns to be found. The ‘Gangster Squad’ literally hurl themselves headfirst into the situation with little finesse or planning, then act surprised when it all goes horribly wrong. Oceans 11 this ain’t.
Sean Penn chews up the scenery as Mickey Cohen – it’s a hammy performance that occasionally flashes with moments of genuine intimidation and menace. He delivers badly written lines rather well. Sadly, the script is all over the place elsewhere. When O’Mara’s wife (Mireille Enos) rattles off a list of her husband’s many attributes and finishes by describing him as a “demon in the sack”, it’s cringeworthy. When Detective Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi) awkwardly asks O’Mara what the difference is between the squad and Cohen, the filmmakers are hitting the viewer over the head by stating the obvious. It’s always the script talking rather than the characters.
Robert Patrick gets some good laughs but is largely wasted as legendary gangster-killer Detective Max Kennard and Brolin is a decidedly wooden hero. The rest of the squad members do little to shine, although Detective Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie) admittedly does look good throwing a knife.
Gangster Squad’s saving grace is Ryan Gosling. He’s by no means at his best here, but he seems to be the only actor (besides Penn) who actually tries to embody their role. He’s more watchable when he fails than his co-stars when they succeed – a street shootout featuring his character is the film’s best scene and his chemistry with co-star Emma Stone (as already established in Crazy, Stupid, Love) is undeniable despite poor development of their relationship in the script itself.
Featuring several unnecessary CGI-enhanced slow-motion action sequences, a rudimentary plot and undeveloped characters, it’s hard to recommend Gangster Squad as anything more than an easy watch. It’s sadly yet another case of the trailer being more enjoyable than the actual film. An average film that could have been – and should have been, especially with the talent involved – so much more. You’d be better off watching The Untouchables (1987) or L.A. Confidential (1997) instead.
6 OUT OF 10