Gangster Squad is not L.A. Confidential. Let’s get that out-of-the-way. It’s a beautiful shot film that takes place in the late 1940s of Los Angeles and clearly does not have the depth of the Russell Crowe movie. However, the best description of I have seen from the movie is from the illustrious Brian Kronner himself: “It’s The Untouchables meets Commando.” Expectations are important when you enter the movie theater so make sure you know what you’re getting into. With this movie, what you’re getting is a straight up action movie that is predictable and has zero character development, but the cast is too darn good not to look at and the pacing is fast and furious that it’s a great ride the whole time.
The movie is about the fall of notorious gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) in Los Angeles and they say it is inspired by true events, but one can tell it is heavily dramatized. Mickey Cohen wants to dominate all and grab as much power as he can. He is pretty much the embodiment of Manifest Destiny, if it meant dominating all sources of crime and conspiracy. However, there are people out in the world that refuse to bow down, such as Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), an old war hero that just wants to clean up the town. These people are few and far between in a city filled with crooked cops and bought off public officials. Even when you stand up to the corruption, expect to pay a heavy price for your actions. There’s only one way to take them down – a clandestine task force made up of dreamboat Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), cowboy Max Kennard (Robert Patrick), Officer Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie), rookie Navidad Ramirez (Michael Peña), and the tech guy Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi). Police Chief Parker tells Sgt. O’Mara to put together this team, but operate with no ties back to the police. That means take no prisoners and take down the operations of Cohen one racket at a time.
Obviously there are obstacles along the way, whether it’s Cohen’s brutal take on killing those that cross or fail him, or even his mistress Grace Faraday that takes a shine to Wooters, so it was never going to be an easy task. Unfortunately, the movie tends to gloss over the details that this outfit comes up with the worst possible plans that have no logic or any guarantee a police force could mess up so bad and end up successful all the time. The guys wing it and hit locations to destroy Cohen’s influence in Los Angeles, but we get no explanation of how it sets him back. All we know is that violence gets Cohen’s attention as the battle for LA commences. This makes for a great action flick that director Ruben Fleischer dresses in beautiful 1940s sets and production and costumes but if you’re looking a deeper story into the purpose of everything and motivations, you won’t get it with this movie.
The characters are well acted and the cast is great. Gosling comes off as very Marlon Brando-esque and can pretty much do anything as he wishes. Brolin is good as the steely, straight arrow O’Mara, and the supporting cast of his squad makes it all worthwhile to see them on screen.
Sean Penn does act a bit like a Dick Tracy villain (the make-up adds to that), but does well as a guy undeterred in reaching his goal of owning Los Angeles. I do feel that Emma Stone was a bit miscast because she doesn’t really pull off the femme fatale look they want, and seems too young or naive to pull off what she does. At least make for a nice looking clone of Jessica Rabbit so there is that.
The character development is the weak point as there is no backstory for anyone. Yes, Mickey Cohen is a boxer, but how exactly did he get to his position? We don’t know so we have no real impact to see why he does not want to give up the life other than simple ‘power’. O’Mara is just the straight edge, Wooters is just the aloof ladies’ man with a heart of gold and a pinch of cynicism, Keeler is your nerd that wants the best for his family, etc. The actors do their best with the stereotypes to make them interesting, but offer nothing else that isn’t already on the screen. It’s almost like a satire of the whole genre, with each cliché represented, but in a way that’s likeable because it never pretends to be anything else.
The action is great in the movie however and keeps the audience visually stimulated throughout. It might attempt to get deep with drama and subplots, involving O’Mara’s pregnant wife (Mireille Enos) or the back and forth of Wooters and Grace, but these plots are soon forgotten once the bullets start flying – Which is fine by me, but it’s all about tempering your expectations. The movie is predictable and the foreshadowing of things tends to be overbearing at times but it shouldn’t take away from the fun visuals and experience you’ll get from watching this movie. A good action movie, but if you’re looking for a crime noir, go watch something else.