Gangster Squad (2013)
“No Names. No Badges. No Mercy.”
Director: Ruben Fleischer
Cast: Sean Penn, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone
Synopsis: Los Angeles, 1949: A secret crew of police officers led by two determined sergeants work together in an effort to take down the ruthless mob king Mickey Cohen who runs the city.
It’s almost a misrepresentation for the makers of Gangster Squad, an astonishingly predictable crime thriller, to claim it is based on Paul Lieberman’s factual account about the formation of an elite squad of cops working incognito to smash organised crime in Los Angeles in the years after WWII. Apart from this basic premise, the rest of Will Beall’s script bears no resemblance to the events described in Lieberman’s book, and instead provides us with a fictionalised gangster movie that revisits all the old cliches established in the genre movies Warners were making way back in the 1930s, while borrowing heavily from the likes of The Untouchables and even The Magnificent Seven.
The squad is comprised almost exclusively of war veterans who are still fighting their own personal war and find that doling out regular doses of heavy violence to gangsters offers them a legitimate channel for their socially unacceptable impulses. They’re led by Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), a man selected by Police Chief Parker because of his incorruptibility in a force that is riddled with officers on the take — mostly from Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), a former boxer who views himself as the instrument of progress. We first meet him atop the Hollywood Hills as he oversees the death of a rival gangster who is literally torn apart by the two cars to which he is chained driving off in opposite directions. Mickey is not a nice guy, but Beall somehow nearly manages to have us rooting for him as the squad focuses all their resources on bringing down his empire.
The Squad is comprised of a half-dozen men, each of whom possesses a character defining talent. Sgt Jerry Wooters is a maverick cop who initially resists O’Mara’s offer to join the squad. He’s a bit of a loner and a ladies man who just happens to be having an affair with Cohen’s girlfriend Grace Faraday (Emma Stone), but it’s the death of a shoe-shine boy, caught in the cross-fire of a gang war, that melts Wooters’ heart and changes his mind. Max Kennard is a sharp-shooter who wears a wide-brim Western-style hat and sports one of those droopy Old West moustaches. His sidekick is a novice Mexican detective named Navidad Ramirez (Michael Pena) who proves his worth participating in high-speed car chases. Anthony Mackie — the obligatory black guy inserted, like Ramirez because of his ethnicity rather than because there were any non-whites in the real squad — plays a uniformed cop who is an expert knife thrower, while Giovanni Ribisi is Conwell Keeler, the high-tech wizard who is the only member of the squad to question whether the methods they use make them no better than the man they are hounding, and also the only one — outside of Mara — with a family — so you know exactly what’s going to happen to him before the credits roll…
As Cohen goes about rubbing out those who stand in the way of ‘progress,’ so O’Mara and his gang set about sabotaging his operations. Their first effort runs awry when the illegal gambling den they try to close down turns out to be guarded by uniformed cops who capture and imprison two of the squad. This sets in motion an escape plan which is a direct rip-off of Support Your Local Sheriff (1969), only not as funny. The boys enjoy greater success once they bug Cohen’s television (one of the few episodes in the movie that is based on fact), and are on the verge of bringing him down when he finally figures out just what is going on.
Gangster Squad looks terrific, with great set design and costumes and a rich, deep look to the colours. But sadly all this style is at the cost of any substance. Nothing about the movie grabs or surprises its audience so that things quickly begin to drag. Penn does his best to enliven things with a performance that occasionally verges on parody but at least brings a little energy to proceedings. Gosling, trapped in a sub-plot so trite it belongs in a 40s B-movie, is so laid back he’s virtually comatose, while Brolin delivers a particular colourless performance. All in all, it’s difficult to see how anyone involved in this sub-standard gangster flick can justify its existence when The Untouchables and Mulholland Falls, both superior movies with similar plots, are already out there.