Gangster Squad - movie review
Gangster movies are about as iconic as Hollywood gets. A guy in a big coat and fedora firing a tommygun like a manic: stick a couple of those in a movie and you’re halfway home. Much like westerns, their appeal has faded over the years; much like westerns, every now and again Hollywood tries to kick-start the genre just in case there’s still some life left in it. The last serious try was Michael Mann’s sombre, historically accurate (kind of) Public Enemies. Seeing as that didn’t set the world on fire, with Gangster Squad we get a very different kind of approach.
Dateline 1950’s Los Angeles! Ex-boxer turned mobster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) is tightening his stranglehold on the city of angels with each passing day. Some cops, like slick Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) figure you have to go along to get along. Others, like hard-boiled John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), aren’t just going to sit idly by while the city they love falls into the clutches of evil.
So when O’Mara’s brutal takedown of a Cohen brothel brings him to the attention of the Chief of Police (Nick Nolte), he’s offered the job of getting rid of Cohen by any means necessary – so long as it involves a whole lot of violence.
Seriously, the Chief of Police (with his assistant Darryl Gates by his side, which is both accurate and a grim joke for those who know their LAPD history) actually says he doesn’t want to go through the courts, and as O’Mara and his crew are all veterans of World War Two (apart from Robert Patrick’s wild west quick draws artist, who seems to be a veteran of the Indian Wars, if not the actual Civil War), they have no problems whatsoever with that.
If you’ve ever seen The Untouchables you pretty much know everything that’s to come. That is to say, Gangster Squad pretty much lifts every single plot beat from that film. Which looks like bad news for the guy playing the nerdy cop (which would be Giovanni Ribisi), though the film does try to mix things up a little by also having a black cop (Anthony Mackie) and a Mexican (Michael Pena) who could just as easily turn out to be expendable.
And to be fair, Wooters’ relationship with Cohen’s moll Grace Faraday (Emma Stone) is a bit of a new twist on a very old story and Jack Whalen (Australia’s own Sullivan Stapleton) as a “good” mobster occasionally threatens to inject a splash of grey into this film's black and white worldview.
That’s not a threat this film is at all interested in following through on though, because it knows full well that you’re not here for subtle character development or historical accuracy: you want square-jawed cops and greasy thugs firing tommyguns wildly at each other, and this delivers the lead in spades.
There’s a fine, almost invisible line between straightforward and stupid and this film treads it from start to finish, so if you’re not a fan of the genre a lot of the goings on here could seem pretty stale and played out. An evil mobster who keeps killing his own men? A plucky shoeshine boy who should probably invest in a bulletproof vest? Get outta here.
But while this film isn’t exactly clever there’s a certain entertaining energy to the way it commits itself to handling all the clichés totally straight. The good guys are all pure of heart, the bad guys are amazingly bad, and Gangster Squad goes for the war between them with blood-splattered gusto and a lack of shame or pretense that’s refreshingly entertaining.
It certainly looks good too: the art design goes all out to re-create, if not the reality of 1950’s LA, at least the way the city would like to think it looked back in it’s golden age.
The performances here are mostly serviceable from a cast that usually does better, though at least Brolin does have the occasional gleam in his eye as a very Dick Tracy-esque square-jawed upholder of the law.
Fortunately Penn goes all out with his scenery chewing, which is exactly what he should be doing here, and if he does seem a little like a live action cartoon at least his reading of the line “here comes Santy Claus” right before going nuts with a tommygun won’t easily be forgot.
Penn’s antics aside, if you’re not already a fan of gangster movies there isn’t much going on in Gangster Squad to make it worth your while, and if studio Warner Brothers (who started the gangster film craze in the 30s with Little Caesar and The Public Enemy) was hoping it’d spark a revival of the genre they’re set for disappointment. But for those viewers willing to see an old familiar story told with enthusiasm (and a lot of blood), then this is a streetcar to hell worth riding on.
(Images via FDC)