‘Gangster Squad’ Review

Published 2 years ago by , Updated November 18th, 2014 at 3:49 am,

Gangster Squad Josh Brolin Ryan Gosling Gangster Squad Review

Filmgoers will likely enjoy Gangster Squad, but it falls short of being another classic mob movie.

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 UntouchablesThe 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.

Gangster Squad Josh Brolin Nick Nolte Gangster Squad Review

Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) and Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) enlist the ‘Gangster Squad’

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.

Gangster Squad Sean Penn Mickey Cohen Gangster Squad Review

Sean Penn as the notorious Mickey Cohen in ‘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.

Gangster Squad Emma Stone Ryan Gosling Gangster Squad Review

Grace Faraday (Emma Stone) and Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) in ‘Gangster Squad’

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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Let us know what you thought of the film in the comment section below. If you’ve seen the movie and want to discuss details about the film without worrying about spoiling it for those who haven’t seen it, please head over to our Gangster Squad Spoilers Discussion.

For an in-depth discussion of the film by the Screen Rant editors check out our Gangster Squad episode of the SR Underground podcast.

Follow me on Twitter @benkendrick for future reviews, as well as movie, TV, and gaming news.

Gangster Squad is now playing in theaters. It is 113 minutes long, and is Rated R for strong violence and language.

Our Rating:

3 out of 5

Follow Ben Kendrick on Twitter @benkendrick
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  1. I totally agree with your review. It was entertaining but not very deep. I liken it to Public Enemies in that it’s not really bad but just not as good as it could’ve been.

  2. Emma Stone. The only reason I’ll see the movie.

  3. I’m really on the fence about this one.
    It may be just me but every preview I’ve seen comes off as kind of corny.
    I’m a huge fan of Sean Penn but from the little bits I’ve seen his performance seems like it could cross the line into comical…
    On the surface and from looking at the cast and story I thought this would be right up my alley but I think it’s best that I wait for Blu-ray.

  4. Damn. I was really looking forward to this movie.

    So what does this mean for Justice League? (GS writer Will Beall is also writing Justice League, for those who don’t know) If the script was one of the weaker points, then that makes me A LOT more nervous for JLA, as if I wasn’t worried enough.

    • Well, I would be a little worried, then. In fact, I can imagine it turning out the same considering there would be no depth anyway due to the fact that the Justice League characters would have no origin films to fall back on for depth or familiarity. Save for Superman, of course.

      • @Adrian, yeah that’s what I’m afraid of…

    • Its funny you bring up JLA because after leaving the theater the one thing I kept thinking was I jut watched a superhero movie within a crime drama lens. Whether that is good news for JLA, I’m not entirely sure yet, but I’m leaning towards bad unfortunately.

  5. Interesting. But, I think I’ll go see it anyway. It may not fall under the classic gangster film, but its still entertaining enough for me.

    • Go see this movie. I always read what critics say about a movie but I also don’t always agree….It is enjoyable….

  6. Unfortunately this movie fell short of expectations as I am a fan of Fleischer’s work. Much of the anticipation was for a more developed plot and it just didn’t deliver. For many the presence of Ryan Going and Emma Stone may bring you to the theatre but high profile names doesn’t equate a good movie. Greatly disappointmented but I will give credit to Ryan for his performance.

  7. I saw this movie at an advanced screening in Sydney. I enjoyed it thoroughly. I thought the acting was great especially from Sean Penn. Plenty of action and violence to keep fans of this genre of film satisfied. I highly recommend it…..

  8. @Ezra You shouldn’t be nervous, doing a gangster flick and a legendary superhero team movie are two different things, i still have hope

    • @Norrin, let’s hope so. But still, sloppy writing is sloppy writing, whether it’s a gangster movie or a superhero movie.

      • Well just because this movies script wasn’t tip top doesn’t mean that JLA can’t be. After all the director of JLA could rewrite it or polish it or the studio could bring somebody else in altogether. Don’t loose sight if you’re judging by this review that some of this films faults are also laid at the feet of the director. I was never as impressed as others were with ‘Zombieland’ anyway. Makes me think that Ruben Fleischer got lucky with that one…

        • True. Let’s hope the director was a bigger problem than the writer here.

  9. I have read the Paul Lieberman book and I have also read Mickey Cohen’s book “In My Own Words.” It is very interesting to read both sides. Now I cannot wait to see the movie. Actually, I find Mickey Cohen very witty and downright hilarious sometimes. He actually did some good also – or so he claims. He is certainly not a one-dimensional character and he really was a character. I think it is sad they had to cut out the theatre scene. That would have been cool. It had nothing to do with the Colorado shooter. Anyway, I cannot wait to see the movie. I am interested in this period of Hollywood history. It just goes to show. The world has always been violent.

  10. Suffered from a serious lack of originality, I gave it 63%

  11. I think this movie looks really good, and in my opinion people need to sit down and watch the movie, dont worry about stories or actors until the second – maybe third or fourth, OR NEVER IF YOUR GONNA COMPLAIN – time through watching it. Just enjoy the movie as is, if it’s truly bad you cannot enjoy it. For me, i know Avengers was a bad movie because 1. Too much humour, 2. Hulk had no veins yet lifted several heavy objects, 3. Loki sucked as a villian and 4. It centered too much around Iron man, it felt like it was an “Iron Man and Friends” movie. I’m not a huge Star Wars fan, so I don’t know if I’m gonna see that, Disney ruined The Avengers, I felt the seperate “Iron man” and “Hulk” movies were good, but Avengers lacked quite a bit of enjoyment, which caused me not to enjoy it. SO if Star Wars 7 sucks, I have a feeling Star Wars is gonna screw itself over… AGAIN

  12. I thought it was a good watch & very entertaining. Sean penn did great imo & was the standout.

  13. I am the daughter of John O’Mara, the Los Angeles police officer currently portrayed in the Hollywood $75MM movie, Gangster Squad, set in 1949. However, the movie bears absolutely no resemblance to the true story of my Dad and his near obsession with the mobster Mickey Cohen. Paul Lieberman’s recently released book tells the story much more accurately. My Dad and his colleagues tracked Cohen through dogged police work, courage, nerve and intelligence. In the movie, my Dad is shown firing away in numerous bloody shootouts, killing and maiming. In real life, my Dad shot his gun once in twenty years. The movie’s release gives us an ideal forum to discuss our cultural obsession with gun violence in film. There was a true story, a great story, where the cops outsmarted the bad guys, but the truth was largely ignored by the script in favor of endless gunfire and sadistic murder and gives us clear, hard evidence of the movie industry maximizing violence to garner ticket sales.

    • 1. You did not have to say “Hey I’m John O’Mara’s daughter” in order to write this. 2. Yeah right, I bet they fired about half as much as they did in the movie. 3. Get over it! They spun the truth, so did Lincoln, so did Battle: Los Angeles, so did pretty much every movie that says “Based on A true story”. 4. It made the movie better, I’m sure you would’ve seen it if the trailer would’ve shown some suck up documentary like you put it.

  14. A behind the scenes look at what turned out to be a terrible set to work on…Gangster Squad. http://huff.to/118FBGH

  15. I don’t see what was wrong with this… Sure some lines spoken didn’t fit where they were placed, but I really enjoyed the fighting scenes, the acting, the action, the comedy even. Overall, I gave this movie a 4.5 out of 5, and the only reason that .5 was missing was because I felt the beginning was a little weird along with what I said, the lines not fitting. Overall, I’m gonna get this on bluray and hope they have a sequel! Everyone else could enjoy this movie if they’d sit down and watch the movie.

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