The sooner you get it through your head that GANGSTER SQUAD isn't L.A. CONFIDENTIAL, the better off you'll be. In fact, you might as well just begin reconciling that Ruben Fleischer's latest picture isn't trying to be any sort of film noir nor a serious mobster/law enforcement either. About the only thing serious in the film is... well, nothing really. There's not one bit of business here that takes itself seriously, and, if you're looking for something a bit more dramatic in tone, you're not going to find it here. But what you will come across with GANGSTER SQUAD is a big fun romp that'll have you entertained for the time you're planted in your theatre seat, only to forget just about everything you soaked up in those two hours the second you leave for home. It's nothing more than movie fast food... it tastes fine in the moment, but it's going to run right through you before you know it. It's a meal... just not a memorable one.
It's 1949 Los Angeles, and, even though on the surface, the City of Angels appears to be this glamorous place - a credit to the glossy production design, which turns the clubs and the streets of L.A. into a character of sorts - there's a seedy underworld that threatens the innocence of this budding metropolitan area, one controlled by Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), a Jew who along the way managed to take the respect of the Italians in Chicago with his lust for both violence and power. L.A. is much less organized than the crime syndicates in Chicago and New York. Out there, it's the Wild West, giving Cohen the opportunity to not only control his own city, but potentially everything to the left of Chicago if he can pull off his latest money-growing enterprise. However, it's not going to be so easy for him, as, regardless of how many cops, judges and politicians he's bought along the way, there's always one willing to stand for what he thinks is right... in this case, the tough, no-nonsense Irish detective John O'Mara (Josh Brolin), whose penchant for justice and order has no price that can be met by dirty money. With a willingness to stand up to the mob, O'Mara is given the task of assembling a group of fellow officers who can aid him in not arresting Cohen, but in shattering his whole operation. Good, clean, fine, upstanding cops aren't going to do the trick, so O'Mara pulls together a motley crew of misfits that he believes can get the job done - a smooth-talking pretty boy who gets thrust into the action out of moral obligation (Ryan Gosling), a cop dead-set on shutting down the heroin that took the life of a family member (Anthony Mackie), an old gun hand who thinks he's still got it (Robert Patrick), his Mexican protege who can't find law work because of his ethnicity (Michael Peña), and a bit of brains capable of tapping a phone or pinging a secret location (Giovanni Ribisi). With this band of guys willing to get their hands dirty in order to clean up the streets, the stage is set for the inevitable showdown between good guys and bad guys.
Where GANGSTER SQUAD works is in its examination of the blurred lines that exist between those two distinctions, with a bunch of men on the right side of the law forced to resort to some rather unsavory tactics in order to make a dent in Cohen's operation. Doing things by the book isn't going to get anything done, setting up a bit of a moral dilemma about what the difference is between the cops and the criminals, other than a badge. If the cops are cracking skulls as a means to what many would see as a justified end, where does the distinction between the the sides truly exist? How can the good guys defeat the bad guys when they're willing to do those bad things that make them bad in the first place? There's a price to pay for trying to really cripple that sort of mindset and behavior, and GANGSTER SQUAD takes the rare chance of self-identifying that quandary and its effects on the good guys willing to break their own code in order to win the war. Brolin and Ribisi absolutely carry the theme of those hard choices throughout the film, giving GANGSTER SQUAD at least one intelligent principle for which you can lend some thought.
The secondary layer of the Gangster Squad is where the personality of the film lies. This ragtag bunch makes for the film's lighter moments, which pop amidst the gun fights anc car chases that Fleischer certainly knows how to make look cool. Robert Patrick steals just about every scene he shows up in as this aging gunfighter clearly from a different era. There's an old school mentality to his business that butts heads with these younger kids on the squad... and Patrick owns this clashing of styles to such great effect that you almost want to see another film that shows you how he even got to this point of his life. This is a character backstory you wouldn't mind watching unfold, because you know it's filled with all sorts of ridiculous adventures. But beyond him, each of these supporting roles get their moments in the sun, so to speak, which places them much more in the fabric of the film than just being a couple guys in the background who happen to shoot off ammo every few minutes.
If there's a weak link to the Squad, it's surprisingly Gosling, who relies solely on charm and the fact that he's Ryan Gosling to draw you into this likeable character who, for all intents and purposes, would rather not get involved. With Brolin leading the charge and plenty to pull from the rest of the squad, Gosling feels like the odd man out - forced onto the squad by some rather extreme circumstances and then forced into a love story that most likely only exists because some studio exec passed along a note saying there had to be a female love interest at some point along the way (that unfortunate slot gets handed to Emma Stone) or else women won't come out at the box office to see a movie about gangsters. It's paint-by-number storytelling at its worst in that regard, and, while Gosling can survive on his chemistry with Brolin alone, this is an extraneous part that should have been shed from the film a long time ago. Gosling can only do so much with this rather unengaging material he's been given to work with. Talk about trying to make lemonade from lemons. Gosling squeezes all movie and only gets a few drops.
As for Penn's portrayal of Mickey Cohen... it's a pleasure to watch him chew up scenery as this vicious ruthless gangster at times - you needn't wait more than five minutes before he's taking a great deal of pleasure from watching a rival mobster be torn in half by a pair of cars heading in opposite directions and then having his remains fed on by wolves - but too often he feels like a caricature stolen from Warren Beatty's DICK TRACY. In a movie that already feels turned up to 11, Penn somehow manages to be too much.
There are elements of GANGSTER SQUAD that do make it feel like THE UNTOUCHABLES, but, while that film tried to ground itself in some sort of reality, GANGSTER SQUAD doesn't even bother. This is a comic book sort of gangster movie, and if you can come around on that, you'll find some enjoyment here. It's hardly good, but that doesn't mean you won't have a good time watching.
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