Los Angeles and gangsters. Before “Gangster Squad,” the first film that ought to come to mind is “L.A. Confidential.” For Ruben Fleischer’s latest, that creates an outrageous comparison point. The “Zombieland” and “30 Minutes or Less” director was probably not aiming that high. Even if he weren’t, he’s still not even aiming to add a prestigious entry to the gangster film canon. “Gangster Squad” is instead one of if not the only history-based gangster movie that just wants to be an action flick.
Okay, so maybe not just an action flick, but considering the slick characters, numerous gun fights, explosions, etc. and sharp-tongued dialogue, no questioning entertainment is the goal. Considering we’re used to mob dramas that have high aspirations and a disproportionate amount of these films have won great acclaim, a number of audiences are likely to find something a bit off.
The first reason is the historical context. Jewish gangster Mickey Cohen has settled in Los Angeles in hopes of establishes his criminal network and owning the city. Police Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) wants to break his grip before it takes complete hold, so he recruits Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) to put together a team that will operate outside the department and the sight of the law to bring Cohen down.
O’Mara assembles his team in classic (albeit formulaic) cinematic fashion, with men who each have various specialties from the sharpshooter (Robert Patrick) to the tech geek (or the ’40s version of a tech geek) played by Giovanni Ribisi. Among the last of the men to be convinced is Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), a womanizer who seduces Grace (Emma Stone), Cohen’s etiquette coach and play thing. Together, they plot ways to hit Cohen where it will sting most.
If the team-assembling sequences don’t tip you off as to the movie’s super squad action flick qualities, Cohen’s sinister ways of torturing and killing the men who screw up and the ubiquitous actions scenes will. Even if the events depicted in the film were all true, they definitely didn’t look this pretty in real life.
Fleischer’s glory-shot style with big action payoffs simply wars with everything we’ve come to expect from the genre. Strike that—mob dramas have had among film’s greatest payoffs, but with a jaw-dropping realism that shakes you deep down. As terrific as “Gangster Squad” plays late ’40s dress-up, it does so with the intent of glorifying both the era as well as organized crime and law enforcement.
If you like your movies slick, “Gangster Squad” will fail to disappoint you as you might be lead to believe it will, but if you prefer something that gets its hands dirty and doesn’t care much for looks (more of a Sly Stallone type gangster film), you won’t find it here. There’s a reason Ryan Gosling and Josh Brolin are the heroes here.
Honestly, I applaud Fleischer’s choice to focus on the glitz; after all, this is set in Los Angeles and Cohen had over-the-top aspirations. The script’s choice to be more of a fast-talking action film was probably not as necessary. Regardless, going into “Gangster Squad” anticipating an action film done in ’40s costumes will greatly improve its entertainment level.
Directed by Ruben Fleischer
Written by Will Beall, Paul Lieberman (book)
Starring: Josh Brolin, Sean Penn, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone