Movie review: Gangster Squad
An underworld pic whose characters bring Tommy guns to a knife fight
Posted: January 30, 2013
Midnight in the garden of evil. Sean Penn, left, plays a well-clothed, dirty-handed underworld crime boss hunted by the gangster squad.
Gangster Squad is a big-budget film about the organized crime that nearly brought Los Angeles to a standstill in 1949. It's half-fiction, half-fact and relies heavily on a sense of nostalgia with many long shots of the cityscape filling out the frame, and plenty of exterior scenes cloaked in a golden hue that is ironically in direct contrast with the somber theme.
Sean Penn plays Mickey Cohen, the ambitious, ruthless overlord and former boxer who rules over the gangsters, policemen and drug trade. Cohen was a real guy, and the vague outlines of his character are in line with the actual Cohen, whose underworld operations in the City of Angels is so terrifying most of the honest policemen who remain are too scared to take him on.
But the police chief, Bill Parker (Nick Nolte), has had enough of the mayhem in his city, so he sends for a sergeant who is not afraid to enter the lion's den, even if that lion's den is a house where girls are sent to be raped by Cohen's men. The sergeant's name is John O'Mara (Josh Brolin), a serious man who saw the worst of the worst during his time in World War II. He is about to become a father, and the imminent birth of his child has a double-edged quality to it: O'Mara wants to make sure the world is a place in which he would be able to tell his child he had a hand in making it a better place, but at the same time the risk he takes by going after Cohen could leave his child fatherless.
It's a dilemma that should weigh more heavily on him than Gangster Squad seems to be ready for, but unfortunately this kind of superficial treatment of character is a near-constant in the film. The titular squad includes a few other police officers, gangster killers and an intelligence operative, who band together in clandestine fashion to undermine Cohen's operation in the city and raze it to the ground, given a kind of "license to kill" status by Police Chief Parker.
Directed by Ruben Fleischer
With Josh Brolin, Sean Penn, Ryan Gosling, Anthony Mackie
One example of this lack of character development is the relationship formed between Cohen's etiquette coach and part-time girlfriend Grace (Emma Stone) and the de facto Lothario of the squad, Jerry (Ryan Gosling). Jerry is a big flirt everywhere he goes and since Gosling is playing the part it's no stretch to believe he can have pretty much anyone he chooses. Given her proximity to his ultimate target, Grace stirs Jerry's interest, but the relationship and its implications for both these characters' lives is never satisfactorily explored, leaving only the violence to try and titillate us.
And there is violence aplenty. In one of the film's opening scenes, as a way of demonstrating how malicious Cohen can be when he wants to, we see him interrogating a former associate before letting the man, arms chained to one car, legs to another, be pulled in half - and we get to watch. The rest of the film has little more gruesome than this, but the sight of people, good or bad, mowed down by Tommy guns does get tiresome after a while, especially when the director considers it proper to ensure the victims are always standing in front of a wall, so we get to see the blood sprayed behind them when they keel over.
This is no L.A. Confidential, as the director doesn't have a good screenplay to fall back on in between the bouts of violence that punctuate his film; in its place, he has only wooden characters played dispassionately. And more violence.
But it all looks good. The set design is beautiful, if often computer-generated, and the film very compellingly conveys the scale of Cohen's power and influence by constantly showing Los Angeles in all its glory onscreen and reminding us he has a finger in the pie at nearly every police bureau. However, where tension could have been developed by focusing on the diversity of loyalty held by the officers in O'Mara's own department, the film has neither tension nor passion and feels (perhaps appropriately) lifeless.
At one point, Gangster Squad tries to make a comparison between Cohen's lust for power and O'Mara's obsession to track him down, but this is a stretch, as we don't get to know either of the characters well enough to draw such stunning conclusions. It's a bad attempt at storytelling and utterly unpersuasive.
The film is far from perfect, but it is often an entertaining take on the crime world of postwar Los Angeles. That is, if you can stand all that blood.
André Crous can be reached at