More evocative of a feeling than an attempt to create something new and vibrant, Gangster Squad doesn’t seem to have a single aspiration beyond simply aping the pre-code hardboiled thrillers that helped to put Warner Brothers on the map in the 1920s and 30s. The fact that this film takes place in the late 40s and that it’s patently unbelievable despite its “based on a true story” leanings throws things off somewhat, but overall it’s a highly satisfying and over the top production designed to look, feel, and sound as tough as possible. It’s the kind of film studios don’t make anymore because the imagination needed to make them work is often in short supply, and while the results are slightly overlong, the results are just fine for a bleak, midwinter’s night.
In 1949 Los Angeles, Chicago mob boss and former prizefighter Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) has begun a reign of terror. With his hands already in the city coffers and with judges on the payroll, the city’s beleaguered chief of police (Nick Nolte) looks to the most honest cop in the city to put together a squad of gangster stoppers before things get worse. The square jawed, no bullshit Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) wants to clean up the city and make it a better place for his expecting wife and soon to be born child, and fear doesn’t seem to outweigh the good of putting Cohen away for life. He enlists the help of a gunslinger (Robert Patrick), the gunsliger’s valet (Michael Pena), a streetwise inner-city beat cop (Anthony Mackie), and the best wiretapper on the force (Giovanni Ribisi), the latter of whom has the only already established family. Also on board is a marginalized and half assed copper (Ryan Gosling) who seemingly wants to help out of revenge and to help cover the fact that he’s sleeping with Cohen’s “etiquette coach” (Emma Stone).
If it sounds vaguely like The Untouchables – or more appropriately a multi-episode arc of the famed Robert Stack TV series – that’s because the vibe is meant to follow almost directly in those footsteps with a bit more of a bloody, nasty streak. It’s cartoonish, but in the best possible ways. Gangster Squad is the kind of film where nothing at all feels real and almost designed to appeal to the kinds of kids and teenagers who would sneak out and catch this kind of eye-catching garbage down at the local multiplex. It’s simultaneously out of touch with both modern audiences and the one’s this same film would have been aimed at in the 1950s.
But the melding of modern digital slickness atop the old timey tough guy dialogue that no one in the right mind ever would have said works well most of the time. Despite some narrative hiccups and the film’s minority characters having almost nothing at all to do, there isn’t a moment of Fleischer’s film that isn’t devoid of at least visceral thrills. Following the wonky, but not unlikable Zombieland and the waste of talent that was 30 Minutes or Less, Fleischer has created his best rounded genre nerd fever dream to date (and one that has an actual discernable ending instead of a giant set piece and nothing at all, respectively). It’s overstuffed, and if any of his films could have benefited from an 80 minute running time instead of 113, it’s this one. But by that same token, it never drags as much as his previous efforts.
The cast also goes a long way, especially the presence of Brolin in what may very well be his most overly masculine role to date. While early reviews certainly wouldn’t be wrong to say that the villainous Penn is overacting beyond the rafters and into the stratosphere, it’s going unnoticed that Brolin more or less does the same thing as the stoic man of justice and kick ass hats. These are comic book characters inhabiting a vision of Los Angeles that’s way too glossy to ever be taken seriously as pure historic gospel. Gosling adds his two cents, albeit going for the wrong kind of comic book tone, with an oddly sing-song styled baby-like voice that makes him seem more like the shoe shine boy that keeps harassing his character than an actual copper, and his romance with the always dependable Stone doesn’t seem to go as far here. No one else really gets the chance to shine because they’re most incidental and there just to move the plot along when the script needs an out, but Patrick gets in some pretty choice moments in what’s likely the best big screen outing he’s had in quite some time.
No one would ever take Gangster Squad to be a serious look at how Mickey Cohen rose and fell from power. No one would even mistake L.A. Confidential for being a similarly “ripped from the headlines” tale, and I defy anyone to say that The Untouchables – show or film – was anything less than an utter fabrication. Fleischer’s film plays fast and loose with the same history, and while the narrative might not be up to those same standards, this is the kind of B-picture major studio moviemaking that should be celebrated rather than dismissed. It’s certainly more interesting than almost all of the major January releases that aren’t obvious Oscar bait.