Gangster Squad is Hollywood bread and butter. The film industry, which sits on the periphery of Gangster Squad’s landscape, as we now know it, was founded on gangsters and westerns. It is apt then, that Gangster Squad strives to be both and, while not quite hitting the mark on either, is nonetheless an enjoyable piece of soft-boiled gangster omelette, with every cliché and expectation beaten in for good measure.
Los Angeles 1949 and gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) owns the city; the press love him, the hoods fear him and he’s got enough cops and judges in his back pocket to be invincible from the law. That is until Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) recruits one of the few good cops left in LA; John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) is an incorruptible officer of the law and he’ll be damned if his wife Connie (Mireille Enos) is going to give birth to his first child in a city run by a crook like Cohen. So he puts together the Gangster Squad; a team of policemen who can’t be identified as police officers if caught, whose job it is to sabotage Cohen’s operations. There’s the brainy one Conwell (Giovanni Ribisi), the tough street cop Coleman (Anthony Mackie), the weird cowboy one Max (Robert Patrick) and Hispanic rookie Ramirez (Michael Pena). At first spurring O’Mara’s advances is hard drinking, smooth talking cop Jerry (Ryan Gosling) but when he starts dating Cohen’s girl Grace (Emma Stone), and he witnesses a friend gunned down in cold blood by Cohen’s hoods, he’ll stop at nothing to help the Gangster Squad succeed.
When the Gangster Squad first assemble it’s hard to believe they’re run by a highly decorated war veteran. Straight out of the gate they’re are about as organised as a team on The Apprentice, flying by the seat of their Tommy Guns rather than having a plan to follow. Gangster Squad, like its merry band of men, is often bereft of plot. It’s a fun little adventure with entertaining, comic book style characters which jumps from set piece to newsreel montage without ever feeling the need to do anything daring.
Based on the true life book by Paul Lieberman, the film plays it pretty fast and loose with the facts. Clearly anxious not to draw too many comparisons to the very similar themed Untouchables, Gangster Squad chooses to ignore the fact that Cohen was eventually undone by, like Al Capone, tax invasion and plumps for something altogether more ‘Hollywood’. And therein lies the film’s big strength and weakness. A film of this nature should be as gritty, noirish and as hard-boiled as an alcoholic private eye. And, in some ways it is. Director Ruben Fleischer litters the visuals with venetian blinds, a bit of chiaroscuro lighting and enough nods to the classic films of the era to make film aficionados click and wink with delight. The homage to the genre comes thick and fast to such a degree that blink and you’ll miss the moment that neatly echoes Billy Wilder’s noir defining shot from Sunset Boulevard. It’s infinitely better than Brian De Palma’s The Black Dahlia which aimed for the same vibe but fell short. But, despite it all, it always feels a little too polished, it’s comic book gangsters, Sin City meets Dick Tracey as opposed to the hard-hitting drama of L.A. Confidential – which Gangster Squad could be viewed as a pseudo prequel to – it wants to be. Certainly Fleischer doesn’t skimp on the violence, bullets rip through hoods and punches aren’t pulled but there’s a gloss here that needed to be scuffed out.
The characters are fairly generic, a kind of Magnificent Six making up the Gangster Squad. Brolin is the Yule Brenner style leader, all macho posturing while Gosling is allowed to bring his natural stick of Steve McQueen levels of cool, casual and cocky scene steeling. Stone, all Jessica Rabbit-ed up, is easy on the eye and again makes for a good foil to Gosling’s charm – after the pair last flirted in Crazy Stupid Love -, but she never quite fills the femme fatal stakes you sense she should. Nolte brings his usual shrapnel gargled voice while The Killing’s Enos has just the right amount of ball and chain nagging which feels warmly organic. Sean Penn hams it up as Cohen, playing into the exaggerated realms of pantomime while trying to emulate De Niro’s line spitting ways as Al Capone from The Untouchables. At times it’s fun but unlike De Niro, you always see Penn rather than Cohen.
Rarely as cool or collected as it wants to be, Gangster Squad is nonetheless a piece of pulp fun which ticks the right boxes without ever pushing the envelope.