Imposing a viselike grip on Los Angeles, thug Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), pontificates to his henchmen: “All things must be burned to the ground—for the insurance money.” So begins the 1940’s stereotyping and violence of the stylish “Gangster Squad.”
The movie quickly becomes an appealing film noir drama and violent shoot-‘em-up, but throughout it all, “Gangster Squad” is formulaic. Viewers can take bets on which characters would ultimately end up in jail or be sacrificed to the movie formula gods. Nevertheless, the ride was worth it at times. Despite a delayed release date and significant reshooting of a key scene, director Ruben Fleischer (“Zombieland” and “30 Minutes or Less”) incorporated the alterations seamlessly.
The setting is 1949 Los Angeles—almost every man is home from WWII and wearing period suits and fedoras. Cohen, having left the “Chicago outfit” mob for L.A., has his West Coast crime syndicate operating drug trade, prostitution, and the sole transcontinental wire for all gambling transactions in the city. Police Chief William Parker (Nick Nolte) pleads with rebellious Sergeant John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) to lead an “off the books” team of stereotypical fringe police officers to take down Cohen’s illicit empire.
With the exception of Sergeant O’Mara, this team feels expendable. The squad members become stock characters, such as an electronics expert, an old timer with experience, and an eager young gun, and they utilize their special skills in scene after scene. Tension builds predictably throughout the mayhem, but because key characters such as O’Mara are one dimensional, the tension never fulfills its potential. O’Mara, however likeable, never convincingly progresses from a frenzied rebel cop to a calm, collected character with clear resolve.
Despite the formulaic nature of many of the characters, some of them still manage to feel compelling. The team also includes archetypal loose-cannon cool guy Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling). Gosling steals the show as a Doc Holliday-type figure, bringing pithy comments and cool demeanor during the intense gunfights, leaving the viewer yearning for more of his compellingly ambiguous character. Yet Wooters’ romance with Cohen’s girl, Gracie (Emma Stone) is sexually charged but lacks a convincing emotional connection, and as a result, she serves as little more than eye candy.
Like other gangster movies inspired by a true story, the memorability of the movie is dependent on the realistic villainy of the bad guy. Unfortunately, Penn’s portrayal of real-life 1940s gangster Cohen fails to carry the movie—his malice is too rehearsed and cartoonish. His speeches about “manifest destiny” and “building his city on the ashes of L.A.” come off as caricaturish. In “Gangster Squad” it is the good guys who must carry the movie, which goes against the spirit of the classic gangster genre.
The film is well paced, with action that was not too overwhelming and solid dialogue and one-liners that prevented the film from straying into the realm of camp. And even with the incredible amount of violence perpetuated by the crime syndicate, “Gangster Squad” evokes nostalgia for a bygone era. It stylistically portrays a simpler time when criminals were only wicked for power and money, which is a breath of fresh air in a cinematic period where Joker-esque mad men seem all too prevalent. However, the film’s weak character development makes it difficult to emotionally invest in the great cast, preventing the film from realizing its full potential.
—Staff writer Alexander J. Spencer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.