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Review: Gangster Squad – Stylish old-school gangster flick

Posted by on January 11, 2013 – 12:03 am
Gangster Squad© 2013 Warner Bros. Entertainment

When I think of old school gangsters, I usually think of The Untouchables in Chicago or The Godfather in New York, but apparently, after the end of World War II, the West Coast also had issues with the illegal activities of the mob. Gangster Squad takes a stylish look at the late-’40s Hollywood mobsters and the secret police unit that drove them out of town.

This film is based on the book, Gangster Squad: Covert Cops, the Mob, and the Battle for Los Angeles, by Paul Lieberman, which tells the true story of undercover cops versus the Los Angeles mob. As directed by Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland), the film Gangster Squad is more of a live action comic book than an accurate docudrama of the real-life police squad and the gangsters they were up against, and I’m good with that. The film has a nostalgic charm that harkens back to the mob movies and pulp novels of the thirties and forties, but still seems fresh – if not necessarily original.

Sean Penn plays Mickey Cohen, a mob boss with big plans to muscle out the Chicago players and control the West Coast crime syndicate himself, especially the gambling action that is being wired electronically through to the East. Cohen also has control of the illicit drug trade, prostitution and most of the city’s cops. Penn plays the mobster as if he were a Dick Tracy villain, but infinitely more dangerous and intimidating.

Josh Brolin is Los Angeles police Sergeant John O’Mara, a WWII veteran and war hero who won’t back away from a fight, even if it endangers his wife and unborn child. He is handpicked by L.A. Police Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) to put together a team of covert police vigilantes to go up against the mob on their own violent terms – basically fighting fire with fire.

Gangster Squad© 2013 Warner Bros. Entertainment
Sgt. O’Mara compiles his squad with archetypical roles like the ladies’ man (Ryan Gosling), the sharp-shooter (Robert Patrick), the nerdy smart guy (Giovanni Ribisi), the guy that’s good with a knife (Anthony Mackie) and the “kid” (Michael Pena). Some might consider this age-old set-up to be rather cornball, but for me Gangster Squad’s antiquated narrative was delightfully fun.

Emma Stone plays Grace Faraday, a sultry redhead who is in love with Gosling’s Sgt. Jerry Wooters, but can’t break away from her attachment to mob boss Cohen. The script, by Will Beall (who is currently involved with penning the new Justice League film), doesn’t ask Stone to do very much except be sexy and sassy, but she delightfully delivers on both marks.

Gosling as Wooters is the standout performance and character in this film and I’m always impressed by this actor’s ability to be bold and intimidating while remaining mild-mannered and almost wussy-like. He has the best lines in the film and I’d love to watch him as this character in a spin-off movie set in the same era.

Gangster Squad© 2013 Warner Bros. Entertainment

The cast of Gangster Squad fits perfectly into the film’s time period and while I’m not a historian, the sets and costumes looked completely accurate to me, and I loved the sepia-tone tint that tweaked the film’s color palette, giving it a pulp gangster comic feel.

You might recall that the original trailer for Gangster Squad was pulled from theaters after the Aurora, Colorado shooting incident last July. The trailer had gangsters bursting through a theater screen with Tommy guns blazing, and in sensitivity to the Colorado tragedy the film was re-edited, and portions re-shot, in order to remove that violent sequence. This also caused the film to be bumped to a later release date, but nevertheless, the movie is still extremely violent – just without scenes in a theater.

Gangster Squad is definitely not an award winner of any kind, but one can tell that it was created by a group of filmmakers, with a perfect cast, that was having a lot of fun with an old cinematic genre – and on that level it is very entertaining. If you love simple old-timey pulp entertainment, you’re going to have a great time at this movie. Grade: 7/10