[Editor’s Note: This week, Bryan Kluger joins us here in the blog to help out with some theatrical review coverage. Please give him a warm welcome. -JZ]
‘Gangster Squad’ lacks character or storytelling depth, but with its amazing cast of actors, over-the-top violence and cartoony vibe, I left the theater highly entertained. Rather than playing out like a true noir gangster film from the ’40s, director Ruben Fleischer (‘Zombieland‘, ‘30 Minutes or Less‘) has gone the route of making this gangster film more like an R-rated ‘Dick Tracy‘ mixed with a Saturday morning cartoon, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Instead of story and character, we get blood and guts.
The movie focuses on a group of cops in 1940s Los Angeles who go off the grid to take down the infamous mobster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) before he and his minions take over L.A. It’s all about the glitz and glamour, rather than a cohesive plot. I’m curious how much was changed from the original cut of the film, since Warner Bros. decided to delay its release date last year due to the Aurora, Colorado theater shooting. Early trailers contained a scene that showcased a group of guys opening fire on the audience of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. That’s nowhere to be found in the final release. That being said, the movie still has plenty of shoot-outs and blood and guts, just not in a theater.
Police chief William Parker (Nick Nolte) doesn’t want to see his beloved city fall to Mickey Cohen, who already has half the state in his back pocket. Parker takes things into his own hands and recruits the honorable and straight-edged war hero Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) to lead a team and take out Cohen by any means necessary. The characters have no great depth or meaning, other than one distinguishing trait each so that you can tell them apart.
O’Mara enlists the help of a quick-draw sharpshooter/cowboy (Robert Patrick), a rookie cop (Michael Pena), a black cop who’s quick with a knife (Anthony Mackie), a smart technology wizard who can set up bugs in the enemies’ housing (Giovanni Ribisi), and a young stud (Ryan Gosling) who uses his charm to win over Cohen’s new squeeze (Emma Stone). That’s one hell of a cast, but no one besides Brolin or Gosling receive enough screen time to care about.
Since Cohen has already made a name for himself in L.A. with his drug, prostitution and extortion rings, he hatches a plan to control all of the wire bookmaking west of Chicago. It’s up to the Gangster Squad to take him out before his company gets up and running. Most of the film is a series of half-assed strikes on Cohen’s businesses, which don’t always lead to a success. But as time goes on and Mickey figures out that it’s not a rival gang trying to take him down, things must move swiftly to prevent him from taking over the city.
Everybody is over-the-top here, especially Sean Penn. News reports about the actual Mickey Cohen showed him to be a very fun and charismatic guy who made anyone with power want to be in his presence, and never showed his sadistic side in the public eye. That’s not the case with this film. Penn plays Cohen as a brutal psychopath who’s not above setting people on fire, putting a drill through someone’s head, or cutting a person in half.
In addition to the amazing cast, the movie’s production and set design are top-notch as well. The filmmakers have done an impeccable job of turning modern Hollywood into 1940s Hollywoodland, with all of the costumes, vehicles and fun joints on the strip. On the other hand, the film has plenty of cheesy one-liners and montages, and lacks setup or character development. However, because it’s mostly about fulfilling the audience’s appetite for action and violence, it’s still a fun ride.