Review by Paul Bowler
Playing fast and loose with the real life battle for the streets of 1940’s Los Angeles, Ruben Fleischer’s super slick crime thriller Gangster Squad charts the story of Brooklyn born boxer turned mob boss Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) who ruthlessly controls the drug, gambling, and prostitution rackets throughout the city.
Faced with corruption on all levels Police Chief Bill Parker (Nick Nolte) brings in Sergeant O’Mara (Josh Brolin) to put together a special team of officers who are willing to do whatever it takes to break Mickey Cohen’s hold over LA. Sergeant O’Mara calls on his friend Sergeant Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), along with cops Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribis), Rocky Washington (Anthony Mackie), and Max Kennard (Robert Patrick) with his protégé Navidad Ramirez (Michael Pena) to take on Mickey Cohen’s gang.
As the newly formed Gangster Squad begins to make its presence felt, striking at key operations at the heart of Cohen’s empire, all seems to be going well, until ladies man Wooter falls for Cohen’s squeeze Grace Faraday (Emma Stone). Their night of passion not only compromises the Gangster Squads mission, but sets the scene for a battle royal that threatens to tear the city apart.
While there are some obvious comparisons to be made between director Ruben Fleischer’s film and The Untouchables, Gangster Squad contains none of the subtleties of Brian De Palmer’s classic. Both films feature officers of the law who have to bend the rules to fight the gangsters on their own terms, but Fleischer’s movie, in spite of its fine attention to period detail, is and altogether glitzier and nastier affair.
Sean Penn heads up the all star cast of Gangster Squad, turning in a maniacal performance as the callous mob boss Mickey Cohen, utilizing a prosthetic nose to complete his image, the gleeful way Penn snarls and swears his way through the film is only overshadowed by the savage violence he inflicts on his enemies. One scene in particular will leave your stomach lurching as a mobster is torn apart after being chained between two cars which then drive off in opposite directions.
John Brolin also excels as the seasoned cop Sergeant O’Mara, there is also a great sense of camadre between the members of the Gangster Squad, but the main draw here for many will be Ryan Gosling’s Jerry Wooters, who gets some of the best scenes in the film. The onscreen chemistry Gosling shared with Emma Stone in Crazy Stupid Love continues to sizzle here as their ill advised liaison sends temperatures rising all around.
Gangster Squad was originally delayed for reshoots when one of the films pivotal scenes featuring a shoot-out inside the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre was cut in the wake of the 2012 Aura shootings in Colorado. A new gunfight set on the streets of Chinatown was subsequently filmed by Fleischer. As it stands this new sequence fits in well, and doesn’t really seem to have a detrimental effect on the film as a whole.
While it may trade style over substance, Fleischer’s film gives this bloody slice of crime history a thoroughly modern sheen. After the making his name with Zombiland and 30 Minutes Or Less, Gangster Squad sees Ruben Fleischer stepping up to the big time. The plot may be riddled with bullet holes in places, but if you can suspend your disbelief there is lot to enjoy here. I think the film would have benefited with some stronger character development in places, but the sumptuous period detail, snazzy suits, and snappy-one-liners more than make up for any failings. Hugely entertaining, and explosively violent, Gangster Squad may not bring anything all that new to the genre, but Penn’s scenery chewing performance as Cohen and Fleischer’s brilliantly choreographed action sequences all add up to a action packed film.