A film review by Craig J. Koban January 15, 2013



2012, R, 113 mins.

Sean Penn: Mickey Cohen / Josh Brolin: Sgt. John O'Mara / Ryan Gosling: Sgt. Jerry Wooters / Emma Stone: Grace Faraday / Mireille Enos: Connie O'Mara / Nick Nolte: Chief Parker / Robert Patrick: Officer Max Kennard / Giovanni Ribisi: Officer Conway Keeler / Michael Peña: Officer Navidad Ramirez

Directed by Ruben Fleischer / Screenplay by Will Beall, based on the book "Gangster Squad" by Paul Lieberman

Those that are going in to see GANGSTER SQUAD looking for a searing and meaningful portal into history may be setting themselves up for supreme disappointment.  Yes, the film is based on a true crime book by Paul Lieberman and, yes, there was indeed a real Mickey Cohen that was a City of Angels gangster that had very strong ties to the American Mafia as a whole through the 1930’s to the midway point of the century.  And, yes, there were indeed a covert bunch of tough minded and determined L.A. coppers that worked outside of the system to bring the infamous gangster to justice. 

Yet, Rueben Fleischer’s third film (behind the slight misfire 30 MINUTES OR LESS and his much, much better ZOMEBIELAND) is not trying to be a staunch historical film, per se.  Critics that have lambasted it for being a more lurid and violent pulp fiction effort seem to miss the boat altogether.  GANGSTER SQUAD is an unashamed bit of exploitative filmmaking with a pulpy underworld cops versus crooks vibe through and through.   Steeped in gorgeous and sumptuous period design, square jawed heroes, grotesque villains, and riddled with Tommy Gun-sprayed brain matter and gore, GANGSTER SQUAD is more like DICK TRACY perversely crossed with SCARFACE than it is a more thoughtful crime noir like L.A. CONFIDENTIAL. 

Set during in post-WWII Los Angeles, the film introduces us to an ex-boxer turned Jewish gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn).  He has - through fear-mongering, intimidation, blunt force, and a penchant for grisly murder - become the most powerful man of the city’s underworld.  He essentially owns the city and everyone at the top that's supposed to protect and serve its citizens, which makes bringing him to justice a seemingly impossible task.  Beyond petty bribery, this dude is even vile enough to run a sex slave and heroin ring.  He's a grade-A heel.



City Police Chief Bill Parker (played by Nick Nolte with a Nolte-esque level of stern and hoarse-voiced gravitas to show that he means business) has had just about enough of Cohen ruining his city.  As a result, he decides to create an off-the-grid, so to speak, group of untouchable officers that will work outside the law and undercover to bring Cohen’s operation down via any means necessary.  He enlists the newly uprooted Sgt. John O’Mara (a poised and dependable Josh Brolin) to, in turn, enlist a batch of recruits.  O’Mara’s wife (the wonderfully natural Mireille Enos) even gets in on the action with recommending that her husband not get squeaky clean, top-of-their-class recruits, but rather those that will not potentially be bought off too easily.  

To be fair, most of the members of the Gangster Squad are pretty much stock character types: O’Mara is the no-nonsense, will-never-turn authority figure; Sgt. Jerry Wooters (a cool, collected, and well tailored Ryan Gosling) is the handsome young cop that easily woes the ladies, but does not want to get bogged down in a relationship; Max Kennard (a delightfully rough edged Robert Patrick) is the aging sharp-shooter that loves his pistol over everything else; his partner, Navidad Ramirez (Michael Pena) is a soft-spoken shy sort that wants to prove his worth; and officer Conway Keller (Giovanni Ribisi) is the smart-talking/tech-knowing geek that does not want to get in over his head and get killed.  

Hmmm…I wonder which one of the Gangster Squad members will be swimming with the fishes first? 

Sarcasm aside, GANGSTER SQUAD looks like a proverbial million bucks.  There is a consummate and nitpicky eye for all of the gorgeous and forebodingly iconic elements of 1949 L.A. here, which more than easily helps ground and immerse viewers in its time (Oscar winning cinematographer Dion Beebe paints his mid-20th Century canvas with the neon colors of the strip while highlighting the dark and shadowy underbelly of Cohen’s clandestine outfits).  The period design is complimented nicely by the obsessive attention to detail applied to the period wear as well: this film just plain looks great.  Fleischer – who made so many individual moments of mayhem in ZOMBIELAND so surreally stylish and evocative – also has fun with a few key action sequences here, and he packs a rat-tat-tat punch, a teeth-clenched intensity, and a slow-motion-infused clarity to them.  There’s an impressively realized car chase sequence, for instance, that never seems to wallow in the typical style of dizzying editing and migraine-inducing queasy-cam hysterics that dominate so many modern action thrillers.  That’s nice to see. 

GANGSTER SQUAD is hardly air tight, though, from criticism.  The film is ripe with undeveloped characters, like, for starters, Emma Stone’s rather one-note and perfunctory boss’ bombshell/girlfriend role who gets smitten with Gosling's equally enamored cop.  All of the steamy chemistry that the pair had in CRAZY, STUPID, LOVE, though, seems oddly muted here.  That, and Stone seems strangely miscast as the sexy damsel in distress; for as attractive as she is, she does not possess the raw and carnal eroticism required for the role.  A lot of other subplots lack embellishment: O'Mara and Wooters' pasts in WWII are only scarcely hinted at and seem more like half-baked ideas than worthy subplots.  Sean Penn is also a curious distraction in the film.  Caked in obtrusively realized makeup, snarling through every line of dialogue, and coming off as borderline schizophrenic in playing quiet scenes that then immediately segue into bursts of animalistic anger, Penn is both dazzling to watch and a bit undisciplined at the same time.  He's kind of all over the map here, but then again, Fleischer never really gives him a map to coherently travel around in.

Then there's the ending of the film that's awash in an orgy of painful and pornographic bullet and fist driven gore and packs a mighty visceral wallop, but never seems all that suspenseful.  Yet, for all of its foibles, I came out of GANGSTER SQUAD finding it truly hard to hate it.  The film is ostentatious and superficially written to the bone, but there’s no denying that it's handsomely mounted, sleekly stylish, and gets the intended job done with proficiency.  This is not a tale of the police versus the mob that tries to be a historical document of its time filled with verisimilitude at every pore.  Rather, GANGSTER SQUAD is a simple-minded, but entertaining and modestly pleasurable comic book auctioneer of intrepid heroes versus nefarious criminals, and the film wears its more cheaply sensationalistic accoutrements like a badge (no pun intended) of honor. 

  H O M E