“Gangster Squad” is a film a lot of people may take the wrong way. Most of us thought we were in store for a gritty, violent gangster pic, and while there is plenty of brutality—one of the first things you see is a pair of cars rip a guy in half, and coyotes feasting on his innards—that’s not exactly what you get. What director Ruben Fleisher (“Zombieland”) delivers is more of a period melodrama that just happens to tell a gangster story. Full of action, it’s also a damn lot of cartoonish fun for a while, like a blood soaked “Dick Tracy”. “Gangster Squad” plays out like a light movie serial, but at the end of the day, however, you want there to be something more.
The dialogue is cheesy and straightforward, and there’s a simplistic black and white morality—the good guys are good and handsome, while the bad guys are bad and ugly. At a couple of points you think the characters are about to touch on the “what makes us any better than the guys we’re after” theme that should be obvious, but each time that gets swept under the carpet after a couple a line or two. We’re not talking about “LA Confidential” or “Scarface” here, and you shouldn’t expect that sort of hard-hitting crime epic.
In the post-World War II Los Angeles of 1949, things are not as great as they appear on the surface. Guys returning from the War find vicious gangster Mickey Cohan (Sean Penn, chewing on every last syllable) in the process of shooting his way to the top of the criminal world. Almost a force of nature, he represents a corrupt new spin on Manifest Destiny. Cops, judges, and public officials of all varieties are on his payroll. Everyone is for sale except for a handful of good cops, like Sgt. John O’Mara (a stone faced Josh Brolin). He’s not going to kowtow to Cohen, and when the chief of police (Nick Nolte) sets up a secret taskforce to take the gangster down by waging a guerilla war, he places O’Mara at the head. As Nolte says, they’re operating in “occupied territory”.
O’Mara is a one-dimensional boy scout. With his pregnant wife—an obvious Achilles heel played by Mireille Enos (“The Killing”)—and a monotonous focus on stopping Cohen, he assembles a squad of similarly singular cops. There’s the gunslinger (Robert Patrick), the smart guy (Giovanni Ribisi), the black guy (Anthony Mackie), and the Mexican (Michael Pena). All of these actors are totally wasted, and somehow no one bats an eye at this collection of different races. Maybe the 1940s were more tolerant than we thought.
Out of the entire crew there’s only one that almost resembles a complete character, Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling). While he’s not on Cohen’s payroll, he’s a bad boy with a heart gold. Playing both sides of the law, he gambles, drinks to quiet his conscience, and womanizes, that is, until he meets and falls for Grace Faraday (Emma Stone), Cohen’s mistress. She sees right through his smooth talking lothario act to see the puppy dog that he is.
The story plays exactly like you anticipate. There are partially comedic growing pains as the guys get the hang of their new racket. You have a montage of the so-called Gangster Squad having a modest amount of success against Cohen’s organization. But you know that can’t last, and things take a darker turn when Cohen goes after retribution. If you’ve ever seen a gangster movie, then you know precisely what is about to happen, and won’t have to waste a single, solitary second speculating about the outcome.
Watching Brolin and Gosling on screen together is the biggest joy of “Gangster Squad”. O’Mara is serious, rigid, and completely inflexible, while Jerry is loose, smart-mouthed, and such a scamp. The two types play against each other well, and the actors have a great chemistry that carries much of the film as they shoot zingers back and forth. They even make the hokey dialogue in Will Beall’s script feel fun and almost fresh. Penn is such an over the top caricature of a brutal gangster that you can’t help but smile every time he pops up, even as he does horrific things to incompetent underlings and stubborn enemies. He doesn’t give a good performance, in the traditional sense, but he’s damn entertaining to watch.
Out of all of the actors, Stone is by far the most compelling. She commands the screen in every frame, and channels the ideal image of a 1940s Hollywood starlet with her sultry voice, glamorous style, and chain smoking. As a character Grace doesn’t have much to work with, but Stone squeezes every drop she can out of the role. In the hands of a lesser performer, this would have been a throwaway part, little more than eye candy, but Stone brings the only real emotional depth to “Gangster Squad”. That isn’t saying much, but she does what she can.
Fleisher has a smooth hand when it comes to working with his actors and balancing moments of heavy seriousness with the lighter, fluffier, brightly colored side of the story. But his action sequences leave quite a bit to be desired. There’s a car chase in the middle of “Gangster Squad” that is muddled, and the editing in the many shootouts is jumbled and bumpy. In addition to that, he throws in an assorted grab bag of visual tricks and devices. Random shots—like Cohen with a Tommy gun—are presented in super slow motion, there are freeze frames, and more gimmicks. These and others are sprinkled throughout the movie with no rhyme or reason. There is no overarching visual theme throughout the film for them to fit into, and you’re left to wonder at his motivations.
There are definite problems with “Gangster Squad”, and while it’s funnier than you may think, in the end it’s an empty exercise, and you can see why it was pushed into the dead zone that is January at the movies. You get the point that Fleischer and company are going for—recreating the feel and tone of an actual 1940s serial instead of “Goodfellas”—but you can’t help but wish there was something beyond just the surface. There is ample opportunity to add layers, both thematically and to the characters, but the film continually opts for the easy way out at every turn. “Gangster Squad” is enjoyable, but once you watch it, you’ll never need to give it a second thought.