June 2024

Gangster Squad (2013)

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DIRECTOR: Ruben Fleischer

CAST: Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Sean Penn, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, Robert Patrick, Michael Pena, Nick Nolte


Gangster Squad is an unabashedly pulpy gangster flick that feels practically like a comic book come to life, but while it serves up the tropes that fans of the gangster genre come to see—lots of pretty period cars and clothes, hard-ass lawmen versus cartoonishly evil gangsters, a pretty moll, lots of Tommy guns blazing, and a few shoot-em-ups—it all feels superficial. It doesn’t help that, in its basic plot, Gangster Squad comes across like a lesser knock-off of The Untouchables, which is not a flattering comparison for the movie to invite upon itself. Gangster Squad might be an entertaining enough diversion, but it’s a mediocre and forgettable lightweight.

1949 Los Angeles is in the grip of an intruder: vicious New York gangster Mickey Cohen (a foaming-at-the-mouth Sean Penn). Cohen is protected behind a seemingly impenetrable shield of bought-and-paid for cops and judges, with places of operation spread out all over the city and flooding the streets with heroin. To take him on, Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) recruits hard-ass WWII veteran John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) to put together a small team that will operate outside of the law, leave their badges at home, and wage guerilla warfare against Cohen’s crime empire. To this end, O’Mara recruits black cop Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie), who’s good with a knife and a gun, crusty old cowboy sharpshooter Max Kennard (Robert Patrick) and his Mexican sidekick Navidad Ramirez (Michael Pena), and wiretapping and surveillance expert Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi). O’Mara’s friend, jaded and cynical fellow WWII veteran Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), initially doesn’t want anything to do with this, but eventually gets reluctantly drawn in. But Jerry is playing a dangerous game by embarking on an affair with Cohen’s moll Grace Faraday (Emma Stone). The “Gangster Squad” starts to put a dent in Cohen’s operations as they carry out raids on his casinos, brothels, and bookies, and intercept his drug shipments. But of course, the more progress they make, the more determined the very angry mobster becomes to strike back.

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Gangster Squad finishes better than it starts. The opening takes a while to hit its stride, with characters thrown at us too rapid-fire for strong development and the Gangster Squad’s activities whisked through via montages and newspaper headlines in what feels like lazy narrative shorthand. There’s an overly slick, glossy, shallow feel to the proceedings, like someone who watched a bunch of gangster movies but didn’t absorb anything besides writing down a checklist of tropes to throw up onscreen; one suspects that if a bot was forced to watch dozens of gangster movies and then make one itself, it might make Gangster Squad. The movie looks good, in a superficially glamorous way; everyone looks cool in their period wardrobes, and there’s loads of period cars and shoot-em-ups, but there’s a poser feel to the proceedings, like the movie is more putting on its best impression of a gangster movie than digging any deeper. It doesn’t help that everyone is prone to talking in affectedly hard-boiled noir-ish ways that are trying too hard and eye-rolling on-the-nose dialogue (“where have you been all my miserable life?”), along with Josh Brolin’s unnecessary and trite sporadic narration. All of the characters are an assortment of gangster movie cliches—the hard-boiled ass-kicking straight-arrow lawman, the cynical cop who finds something to care about, the crusty old cowboy—and it doesn’t help that some of them feel like versions of characters from The Untouchables. Sean Penn’s Mickey Cohen does his best to outdo Robert De Niro’s Al Capone; he gnaws his way through the scenery with teeth-gnashing ferocity, he rants and raves (he doesn’t exactly say “I want him dead! I want his family dead! I want his house burned to the ground!”, but he gets a tirade that’s pretty close to it), and he dispatches his enemies and his own failed minions left and right, in assorted excessively gruesome, Scarface-esque ways (he doesn’t use a chainsaw, but his various methods do include a power drill, being pulled in half between two cars—apparently he’s seen The Hitcher—and being burned alive). Darth Vader is a more merciful boss than this guy. Emma Stone looks good in the period wardrobe, but as the dame caught between Jerry and Cohen, she’s often relegated to looking like a deer in headlights as a thankless gangster movie cliche. Meanwhile SPOILER WARNING Giovanni Ribisi’s nerdy surveillance expert is basically this movie’s version of Charles Martin Smith’s ill-fated accountant from The Untouchables.

The movie touts itself with the “based on a true story” tagline, but it plays fast and loose with its historical basis. There was a notorious gangster named Mickey Cohen (in fact, he was previously played by Harvey Keitel in 1991’s Bugsy), and there was a “Gangster Squad”, but most of the characters not named Mickey Cohen are either outright fictional (unsurprisingly, the real 1940s Gangster Squad was not as ethnically diverse as it’s depicted onscreen for 2013 audiences, and had no black or Latino members) or loosely-based on their real-life counterparts, with some of their names and fates changed. Like Al Capone, Mickey Cohen eventually ran afoul of tax evasion charges, but this isn’t dramatic enough of a comeuppance for Fleischer, so here we get a lengthy climactic shoot-em-up and a fistfight. When it comes to the action, a car chase is somewhat confusingly-filmed, but the movie gives us a satisfactory climax with a lengthy hotel shootout and a fistfight with Josh Brolin and Sean Penn beating the crap out of each other.

This isn’t really an actors’ movie, and apart from Sean Penn, who does a lot of rabid scenery-chewing as the cartoonishly evil and volatile Cohen, who always seems about to explode at any minute, no one really makes much of an impression. Josh Brolin shows he’s as capable as anyone around of playing the stone-faced, square-jawed hard-ass who kicks ass and takes names, with Ryan Gosling as his more suave and laidback counterpart. Emma Stone is little more than a plot device and a damsel in distress, Nick Nolte doesn’t get much to do, and the secondary Squad members—Anthony Mackie, Robert Patrick, Michael Pena, Giovanni Ribisi—don’t get much to do besides serving their obligatory plot functions of filling out the team. This is a testosterone-fueled “boys and their toys” movie; apart from Stone and a smaller role for Mireille Enos as O’Mara’s generic supportive/worried wife, there’s no women on hand apart from bit parts and extras.

Gangster Squad is best summed up as The Untouchables-lite. While it serves up enough guilty pleasure moments—gangster shoot-em-ups and Sean Penn’s scenery-chewing—it’s an unabashed Untouchables knock-off, although the comparison only highlights how inferior Gangster Squad is by comparison. It’s got a slick, glamorous surface, but there’s a feeling that it’s all shallow window dressing.

* * 1/2