by Shawnie Kelly (@DearShawnie)
If you’re hoping for the next great mobster movie, Gangster Squad isn’t likely to take the title. Not because it isn’t good, but because it strays from the typical format in some ways. Directed by Rueben Fleischer, Gangster Squad boasts some heavy hitters in the lineup with Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, and Ryan Gosling carrying the shared lead. Emma Stone adds a much-needed feminine presence, which gangster flicks sometimes lack. The movie is mostly entertaining with a few moments of unfortunate chintzy filler.
It’s 1949, and mobster Mickey Cohen (Penn) is running Los Angeles on a tight leash. Police officers and judges have been bought, and Cohen’s notorious brutality holds any opposition at bay; a dark world of underground crime quickly gains the upper hand. LAPD Sergeant John O’Mara (Brolin) is one of few willing to stand up to the injustice of Cohen and his cronies. He hand-selects a band of renegade cops with intent to forge an all-out assault on Cohen’s enterprise. The “Gangster Squad,” led by O’Mara and Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Gosling), take up arms. Guerrilla warfare is the name of the game; it means destroying Cohen’s establishments, burning his money, and halting his plans for running the entire west coast by fighting him from the inside out.
Mobster films tend to glamorize the lifestyle of crime and this movie, even with the glitz of 1940’s Los Angeles, shows the reality of corruption. Cohen isn’t a good ol’ boy turned bad apple. He’s demented. There is no hint of something honest below the surface; he is not a mere thug. Penn’s portrayal of a ruthless Cohen is fitting, striking a chord of authenticity for audiences. Someone capable of horrific violence, which is present throughout the film, is more likely to be unhinged in every way than simply power-hungry. Gangster Squad gets that right. The flipside of a character like this is that we need some sort of background information, which this movie lacks entirely.
Character development issues aren’t limited to Cohen; it’s a problem across the spectrum. O’Mara is a tough, duty-bound officer who holds honor above all else, even knowing it could take him away from his growing family. What formed his rough edges? Sergeant Wooters is a playboy drunk before taking up with O’Mara and his boys. What is he running from? Grace Faraday (Stone) stands beside Cohen to be used however he wants, even when she loves another. Fear keeps her there, but it’s a mystery as to what put here there. With an ensemble cast, it’s difficult to fully explore every angle. But not exploring any angle is frustrating. In a post-WWII era, there are occasional nods to war taking its toll on a man, but in general, nothing satisfying in the way of clear answers.
What Gangster Squad lacks in depth, it makes up for in style. Visually, this movie is eye-catching and fun to watch. When cliché dialogue occasionally threatens a scene, jazzy costume design and sparkling sets bring it back to life. 1940’s L.A. wasn’t without its charms and that is apparent. There are also several creatively shot scenes that the audience can appreciate — a wild car chase that unfolds halfway through the film is one. Little details like slow motion allow the more chaotic scenes some brief moments of clarity. In a strange way, a choreographed spray of bullets is easier to follow than a frenzied one.
Honor, duty, and leaving a lasting legacy for those behind you are common themes throughout the film. This squad of crime fighters will win you over with their charm and may even get you laughing with some awkward first attempts at busting up Cohen’s operation. But don’t count on the lighthearted tone to go uninterrupted. There is a lot of violence, sometimes even enough to look away for those more sensitive to such things; it’s one area where this movie remains true to the gangster genre. If you’re looking for an hour and fifty minutes of entertainment, Gangster Squad fits the bill. If you’re looking for depth and complexity, take a rain check.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars