Gangster Squad – Review


This squad is far from ‘untouchable’

What’s a “squad”?
It’s like Miami Vice, I think.
(from The Monster Squad)

Never thought I’d be able to lead with that quote, but in the case of Ruben Fleischer’s visual pulp release Gangster Squad, which seemingly borrows from much better gangster pictures, this squad has characters adorned with brown or charcoal grey suits and fedoras, not white suits and pink T-shirts. The time period is late 1940s Los Angeles. Following the mantra of “Go West!” the City of Angels had become a destination of business and industry as it spread into the San Fernando Valley. Its annexation of Hollywoodland (shortened to Hollywood) in the decades prior to the start of the Second World War made it an entertainment capital. And the money generated by the film industry kept the city insulated from the economic hardships faced by the rest of America during the Great Depression. Even so, Los Angeles wasn’t immune to crime and corruption. Gangsters looking to leave the Windy City in favor of a more a sub-Mediterranean climate would make their way to L.A. to make sure the City of Angels had plenty of Dirty Faces. And there was no bigger gangster outfit on the West Coast than Mickey Cohen’s.

Cohen, a former professional pugilist and mid-level hood in Al Capone’s Chicago Outfit, relocated to Los Angeles and started his own rackets, which include prostitutes and heroin. His biggest venture was to be a bookmaking operation that would make L.A. bigger than Chicago or New York. Most of the police, judges and politicians have been bought, but for those who haven’t, like Chief Parker (Nick Nolte), Cohen would like nothing better than give them the Old Yeller treatment.

A cop that can’t be bought is like a dog with rabies, there’s no medicine for it, you just gotta put it down.”

Parker’s only solution to stop Cohen is to act outside the means of the law and have a small group of cops take down Cohen’s rackets through force and aggression. So he enlists the help of Irish cop and war veteran Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) after reading the headlines of his recent exploits busting up one of Cohen’s prostitute rings by himself. A detective with a baby on the way, O’Mara would assemble a team as if he were putting a robbery crew together, in that each member has an identifiable trait. The group is comprised of Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), the lover-not-a-fighter unless pushed hard enough (so his character from Drive only more talkative and with a better wardrobe); a black patrol cop (Anthony Mackie); a surviving relic of the Old West shoot-‘em-up days (Robert Patrick) and his Mexican sidekick (Michael Pena); and finally the family man (Giovanni Ribisi) who is Mr. Fix-It when it comes to kid bicycles or setting up wiretaps.

From the descriptions above the most astute movie watcher can probably guess which of the squad will meet his maker without much effort. All you need to do is take out who has the most and least to lose, minus the names that appear the biggest on the marquee.

And then you have Sean Penn as the notorious Mickey Cohen. Penn is far from a Cohen lookalike, but with so much makeup and prosthetics his resemblance is closer to a Dick Tracy bad guy. Plus he chews so much scenery as Cohen that the termites living in the pre-fab houses that line the San Fernando Valley are jealous. Penn’s embodiment of the character is so odd that I’m not sure he knew the film was supposed to be serious in tone or not. Actually, all the performances are over-the-top to a degree, but some of the actors can disguise it much better than others. It’s not everyday you can say Robert Patrick outperforms an actor the caliber of Penn but that’s the case here. Seriously, Patrick’s character is the best thing about Gangster Squad that you almost wish he had an entire movie dedicated to him.

Ryan Gosling is his old smoldering self and once again shows that great screen chemistry he has with Emma Stone (or any female for that matter), who plays an aspiring actress who becomes ensnared in Cohen’s enterprise playing the role of his moll. Josh Brolin is essentially L.A. Confidential‘s Sgt. Wendell “Bud” White (as played by Russell Crowe), but his mad facial expressions are more likely to make you smirk than be frightened.

Brolin’s introduction makes one think that Gangster Squad could be as volatile as Confidential or be projected with the same kind of verbal and visual fluency that David Mamet and Brian De Palma brought to The Untouchables. The problem is that director Ruben Fleischer is unsure of how it wants to portray 1940s Los Angeles. Fleischer had the right style in mind when he did the successful horror-comedy Zombieland, but here we get the gloss, glamour and style of L.A. but not nearly enough substance. That fault falls on Will Beall’s script, which is very loosely based on Paul Liberman’s book of the same name. Beall is a veteran LAPD officer and published author, but this adaptation shows tonal inconsistencies and a lack of plot progression. While there is some sharp dialogue and exchanges they lack the verisimilitude of Mamet’s screenplay for The Untouchables. Instead, we get common clichés associated with gangster pictures of the era.

Some may recall the firestorm that was associated with this release due to the theater shooting in Aurora, CO, the day The Dark Knight Rises flooded cineplexes over the summer. In the advertisements for Gangster Squad a scene is shown of a gangster shooting up a movie auditorium. To assuage concerns Warner Bros. excised the theater shootout scene and scheduled a week’s worth of production to film a replacement scene.

Don’t worry – losing that scene was no big whoop. Not that that scene if included would have made or broke Gangster Squad; the film has no individuality about it. Even the climatic hotel lobby shootout recalls a different De Palma gangster hit, Scarface (1983) – itself a retelling of the 1932 release.

Prior to watching Gangster Squad, I watched The Untouchables for two reasons. The first was in anticipation; the other was because they both featured squads taking down a crime boss through unlawful means. After seeing Gangster Squad I watched L.A. Confidential to compare how 1950s Los Angeles was portrayed as a neo-noir made in 1997. What I discovered is that De Palma who, like Quentin Tarantino, likes to borrow from great filmmakers and films knew how to bring his own style to the film. Ruben Fleischer still has a long way to go to be as nuanced.

Gangster Squad is cheap entertainment that is sure to appease most viewers. However, considering the setting is 1949 Los Angeles and mob films were more prevalent in the 1930s, it would have been more rewarding if the film had taken its cue from hardboiled novels instead. Do yourself a favor and bypass this gangster film also-ran and stick to the classics.

Director: Ruben Fleischer
Writer: Will Beall
Notable Cast: Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn, Emma Stone, Robert Patrick, Michael Pena, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, Nick Nolte

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