Gangster Squad: Film Review

A fine cast in a cartoonish version of L.A. crime lore.

L.A. mobsters and cops clash in Ruben Fleischer's violent melodrama starring Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn, and Emma Stone.

Gangster Squad is a sensationalistic fantasy about how a clandestine unit of LAPD fuzz supposedly brought Mickey Cohen, California's baddest gangster, to his knees in the late '40s. Made up of synthetics rather than whole cloth, this lurid concoction superficially gets by thanks to a strong cast and jazzy period detail, but its cartoonish contrivances fail to convince and lack any of the depth, feeling or atmosphere of genre stand-bearers like L.A. Confidential. Warner Bros. should be able to shake down reasonable short-term business with this year-opening roll of the dice.

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This often violent melodrama was meant to debut last year but was pulled for reshoots after the Aurora, Colo., theater shooting tragedy; one scene, previewed in the trailer, featured gunmen firing at the audience from behind the screen of Grauman's Chinese Theatre. Even so, the film still features plenty of extra-imaginative barbarity, beginning in the opening scene with Cohen splitting a poor sap in two by attaching him to cars pulling in opposite directions up near the Hollywoodland sign (the last four letters were removed in 1949, the year this story is set). 

Former L.A. homicide detective Will Beall's adaptation of veteran Los Angeles Times writer Paul Lieberman's 2012 nonfiction book has more to do with movie lore than with what really happened, pitting a Magnificent Seven-type group of do-gooders against mobsters trying to take over the town after World War II. More than anything, the film is marred by a connect-the-dots approach to storytelling that shoves the action from incident to incident with no thought to dramatic layering, character complexity, political nuance or twists that might buffet the drama into unexpected realms for a time. Everything is wham!, right on the nose (or in the gut), with nary a grace note or beguiling detail to distract or seduce.

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But there is incident and plenty of it, all portrayed in a brutal modern fashion rather than in a style one would ever associate with the noirish films of the era itself or with the more recent tangy, nostalgic evocations of it. Constrained from going after Cohen (Sean Penn) and his goons due to a widely corrupt police force, new LAPD chief William Parker (Nick Nolte) recruits a special squad that will operate on the QT to stop Cohen from taking over the city completely.

Unfortunately, all the characters are hardly more dimensional than caricatures, identifiable by one main trait and barely individualized beyond that. Heading up the team is straight-arrow Sgt. John O'Mara (Josh Brolin), a war hero ready to fight the bad guys on the homefront after whipping the enemy overseas. Signing up in due course are Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), whose womanizing skills come in handy to lure Cohen's current flame Grace Faraday (Emma Stone) into their game; Central Avenue black beat cop Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie); old cowboy sharpshooter Max Kennard (Robert Patrick); eavesdropping technology expert Conwell Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi); and rookie Latino tag-along Navidad Ramirez (Michael Pena). These are good actors, but aside from Brolin and Gosling, they're barely given any special moments of their own to make their marks here.

While they're getting organized, Cohen, a scrappy former boxer from the East who already runs drug, prostitution and extortion rackets, is ready to make his big move: to control all the wire bookmaking west of Chicago. Half the town seems to be on his payroll, and when anyone takes even one step out of line or fails him, Cohen goes berserk and has someone put a power drill through his head.

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One of the film's biggest miscalculations is to have made Cohen an undiluted psychotic with no compensating charm or charisma. Most accounts of the real guy refer to how entertaining he was, how he catered to celebrities, journalists and politicians and was courted by them in return. Reportedly, he mostly kept his dark side hidden, whereas Penn, looking not unlike Dorian Gray's portrait, plays him exclusively as a raving homicidal maniac who might even have given the Nazi hierarchy pause.

O'Mara's crew begins with somewhat ill-planned lightning assaults on Cohen, knowing it will come down to a race between their success in shutting him down and the gangster's discovery of who's on his tail. On a moment-to-moment basis, some of this stuff is OK; Gosling and Stone work very well together, and the her character's precarious slither from Cohen's clutches to Jerry's embrace generates modest tension, while Mireille Enos brings great warmth and a surprising amount of honest emotion to the potentially hackneyed part of O'Hara's worried pregnant wife.

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Ultimately, Gangster Squad is all about instant gratification, almost as much for the characters as for the viewer. The film pays corny lip service to the idea that, by using thuggish, extra-legal tactics, the off-the-grid cops are lowering themselves to the same level as the gangsters they're pursuing. No lines of dialogue here ring less true than these, as everything else bout the film so fully endorses their Wild West methods.

On a production level, considerable effort has been expended to reproduce Hollywood Boulevard and other city environs the way they supposedly looked in the transitional days and nights of the late 1940s; there's plenty of local color to feast upon, but a mood never sinks in, too preoccupied are the filmmakers with hurrying along to the next showdown.