The trailers for Gangster Squad proudly tout stylized noir crime drama grounded in a ”based on a true story” plot setup – promising an unrelenting tale of L.A. cops and mobsters. However, anyone familiar with the source material, Gangster Squad: Covert Cops, the Mob, and the Battle for Los Angeles from journalist Paul Lieberman, will likely remember a comparatively subdued chronicle of events (albeit with flashy and exciting language). As a result, there’s a significant contrast between the “real” story (even though Lieberman included his own elaborations) and the one depicted onscreen – as actual events and people have been exaggerated to fit Hollywood gangster movie tropes.
Still, an amplified tale of the Gangster Squad has the potential to be a great mobster drama – alongside similar offerings like The Untouchables, The Departed and LA Confidential. Does director Ruben Fleischer successfully balance that “true” story intrigue with impactful onscreen drama and entertaining characters for a great (albeit embellished) movie experience?
Fleischer is best known for the flashy and tongue-in-cheek dramedy Zombieland, so it’s not surprising that Gangster Squad is a hyper-stylized take on the gangster genre. The movie utilizes a mix of fictional and real-life characters, and marries slow-motion gun fights, exploding cars, and neck-snapping fisticuffs with a very grounded and serious moral tale about men of power and the horrors of heroism. The combination lands Gangster Squad in an awkward grey area: a number of charming performances and memorable one-liners make the film engaging, but plot holes and shortsighted character actions leave an underwhelming overall impression. Worst of all, the focus on style-over-substance impairs nearly all of the intended opportunities for genuine emotional connection or striking ideas about Gangster Squad morality – as if Fleischer put too much energy into nodding to noir genre staples without also offering any fresh or unique ideas.
Lieberman’s Tales from the Gangster Squad first appeared in the LA Times back in 2008 as a seven-part series chronicling a band of eight covert law enforcement agents attempting to free Los Angeles from the clutches of organized crime during the 1940s and 1950s. Fleischer’s film tightens that activity window as Police Chief Bill Parker recruits former war veteran and no-nonsense cop Sergeant John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) for a last ditch, no-holds-barred effort to destroy a criminal network built by mobster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn). O’Mara, with the assistance of his wife Connie O’Mara (Mireille Enos), selects five other do-gooder cops to join his team – Captain Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie), Sergeant Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), Detective Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi), Detective Navidad Ramirez (Michael Peña), and Detective Max Kennard (Robert Patrick) - each man possessing a skill set and personal reason for joining the fight against Cohen.
The story provides a very straightforward series of developments and moves competently from point to point. Gunfights and criminal encounters dot from one iconic Los Angeles locale to the next, and the modern CGI visuals provide a striking retro look at the city. A beautiful set-piece in a Chinatown-like setting replaces the infamous “Theater Shooting” scene that was scrapped after the Aurora, CO theater tragedy – and, in spite of the delay, still successfully conveys the magnitude and recklessness of Cohen’s reign of terror.
The film version of Cohen depicts a ruthless monster that only cares about expanding his influence and power by any means necessary, and Penn presents an enjoyable and believable interpretation of the mobster (who was no saint in real life, either). Some moviegoers may be distracted from time to time by Penn’s prosthetic make-up, but in this world of flashy neon sets and numerous fedora hat-tips, a stiff-faced villain is right at home. The performance won’t set a new standard for layered mobster characters, but Cohen is a cruel touchstone for the story at hand – one that helps highlight interesting shades of moral ambiguity in members of the Gangster Squad.
Sergeant O’Mara often resorts to illegal tactics and questionable extremes in his campaign against Cohen, and while the fallout is fun to watch (with a capable performance from Brolin), the character is easily one of the least compelling in the film. In fact, much of O’Mara’s success is the result of sheer luck or well-timed intervention – not “unyielding” police work through self-determination (an idea the film revisits on several occasions). The “fight fire with fire” subtext is certainly a worthwhile idea, but instead of a nuanced character journey, Fleischer delivers an onscreen player who sees the world in black and white, ignoring insight from the very men he assembled, and rarely “earns” his wins.
Fortunately, a batch of supporting characters help elevate the film with some genuinely memorable entries – especially Gosling’s Sergeant Jerry Wooters. Wooters is a much more successful attempt at expressing the muddled morality of post-War 1940′s Los Angeles, and Gosling is amusing to watch as the charming but disillusioned agent. Instead of a rash force of nature, Wooters is well-equipped to understand (as well as reflect) how Los Angeles became so entrenched in mob rule. For that reason, it’s fun to see the character (through a nuanced interpretation from Gosling) navigate and combat Cohen’s savage tyranny.
In addition to the leads, Mackie, Ribisi, Patrick and Peña all get decent (albeit thin) screen time, each with their moment to shine in roles that mostly riff on typical police squad tropes. Emma Stone is a stand-out as Grace Faraday, the woman tasked with making Cohen more “learned.” The role once again pairs the actress with Gosling (after Crazy, Stupid, Love.) and her Zombieland director, but Stone brings plenty of new material to the character, instead of simply falling into a familiar retread.
In the end, Gangster Squad features all of the core staples that make a great mobster movie. Yet, in spite of solid performances, beautiful sets, and memorable lines of dialogue, the final film isn’t a ground-breaking sum of its respective parts. Any worthwhile impact is weighed down by a tongue-in-cheek style that undercuts the strength of those “based on a true story” roots. As a result, the movie relies on underdeveloped ideas and familiar cliches, without a new or unique ingredient to help the experience compete against far superior crime drama entries.
At face value, Gangster Squad is a crowd-pleasing tale of police officers and brutal criminals, but under the surface, there’s bungled characterization, goofy attempts to tie the fictional narrative into “real life,” and downright underwhelming moments of style over substance. Filmgoers will likely enjoy Gangster Squad, but it falls short of being another “classic” mob movie.
If you’re still on the fence about Gangster Squad, check out the trailer below:
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Gangster Squad is now playing in theaters. It is 113 minutes long, and is Rated R for strong violence and language.