Based on a book by Paul Lieberman, Gangster Squad tells the true story of the secretive police unit that took down real life mobster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn). In the film, just as it happened in real life, this elite group of officers were assembled for their uniqueness and proved to be the one and only method of freeing up the choke-hold Cohen had on L.A. in the mid to late 40’s. Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland) wastes no time immersing us in what kind of movie this will be. Like a whirlwind we are swept up in a kidnapping in progress that shows us Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) and his talent for following his hunches even if it most of the times means he doesn’t do things by the books. Gangster Squad is violent with a capital V and one hard-edged affair. The bullets fly fast and free, everyone hits like they have brass knuckles under their skin and when the film starts to look too pretty or gets caught up in sentimentality violence rears it’s ugly head and reminds us of just how dangerous this job was.
Crime, corruption and fear ran rampant in California so much so that it caused police chief Parker (Nick Nolte) to organize a clandestine unit to take on Cohen. In an attempt to fight fire with fire he brings on the tough as nails Sgt. John O’Mara to oversee and lead the task force. Yet in order to be effective they must operate off the books turn in their badges. Where they’re prepared to go, no ordinary lawman may enter and who would want to? Penn’s Mickey Cohen is as ruthless as they come. He used violence to send his message and it was loud and clear. People were afraid of this diminutive mobster and they should be, he had no qualms about making his point or getting what he wanted. He earned the respect of the mob a long time ago and his control of L.A. was, as Nolte’s Chief Parker put it, not a crime wave but enemy occupation. It’s wording and phrasing like that which happens every so often in Fleisher’s film that gives you an idea of what it was like back then. Cohen owned police officers, judges, etc. and if money could buy it, he owned it. Yet that’s one distinction the film (well the story really) makes; the members of this secret unit had to be the kinds of individuals who were unaffected by Cohen’s money. Also it helped that they weren’t afraid of him.
The cast is utterly terrific and though their uniqueness seems to find them plucked right out of a comic book or pulpy noir, novel they all work. From the nasally Ryan Gosling, to the old gun hand Robert Patrick (man it’s good to see him get a sizable role again), the Tonto to his Lone Ranger Michael Pena, to the radio intel expert Giovanni Ribisi (and his dapper Walt Disney mustache), and the streetwise eagle-eyed Anthony Mackie everyone hits their marks and makes the most of their screen time. It’s an eclectic bunch and moreover actors you’d never expect to stand opposite one another but really it works so well. Like any group effort they first need to be brought on board and while an “assembling the team” montage or sequence is always fun, it’s the scenes once they’re assembled that become the most enjoyable. Gangster Squad is a tense thrill ride but Fleischer allows these slower scenes with the Squad itself to break the tension. The banal but often hilarious humor and material endears these characters to us and succeeds in fleshing them out.
Ryan Gosling (playing Sgt. Jerry Wooters) has been on a string of hits since The Notebook and who better to cast as the love interest in the film? He and Emma Stone again work so well together but even though she had proved to be a very capable (and likable) actress she seems too young, or out of place, or both really. It’s an interesting angle to the story that she’s Cohen’s arm candy girlfriend (likely one of many) but that she also has a side interest in Jerry. It’s a secondary plot that advances the main one but feels slightly unnecessary. Still it’s because of this affair (and Ribisi’s wire taps) that the Squad are able to get closer to Cohen and succeed in shutting down almost all of his rackets. Gosling’s attempt at a 40’s era voice seems odd but probably his way of differentiating himself from the rest of the fedora, three piece suit and trench coat wearing characters. As if he’d need to alter his voice to let us know who he is right?
As Mickey, Penn is so deep in character that he makes everyone else look like they aren’t even trying. His intensity hangs over the film like a dark cloud but he gets to be one note after a while. Brolin leads the team with a furled brow and a hard headed attitude. He’s suited to the role as he’s just a little older that most of the Squad. The film gives a good amount of time to show us the exchanges between Brolin and his wife. It’s that family drama that shows a softer and more human side to O’Mara. Of course she’s against it from the get go but as he has no choice in the matter she stands by him and really, with or without a baby on the way, he would be nothing without her. After all, as the film shows, his wife hand picked all the members of the squad. In one scene she tries to explain that she just wants a normal life for the three of them, to which he responds, “I don’t know how to live. I just know how to fight“. He might as well be Mickey Cohen with a mindset like that but then that why he was tasked with leading the Gangster Squad in the first place.
Ruben Fleischer’s Gangster Squad is like a mature Dick Tracy, The Untouchables and Tombstone all rolled into one. This story about lone lawless mystery men, hopelessly outnumbered overcoming unfathomable odds is the stuff of legend. Is everything we’re seeing true? Who knows (except maybe people who read Lieberman’s novel or history buffs). It’s good guys triumphing over bad guys and in that vague sense alone, Fleischer delivers the goods with lots of fun, flair, action and excitement. So between shootouts that will make you duck, to wild car chases that are impressive especially the old Plymouths and Packards of the era, and knockdown drag-out fist fights this is a breezy and colorful account of a very serious time in history. After the success of Zombieland, Fleischer succeeds in delivering a gangland film that is one entertaining time at the picture show.
G-S-Talking Point: From Tommy guns and fedoras to three piece suit and trench coats, how cool was the style of the 40’s? It makes you wonder why people don’t dress like that any more. It’s just oozed class and sophistication didn’t it? Tell us, what period in history did you think had the coolest or your favorite style of clothing?