WRITTEN BY: Will Beall
DIRECTED BY: Ruben Fleischer
STARRING: Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn, Emma Stone, Giovanni Ribisi
RATING: 4 stars
I don't think people realise that when they go to the cinema to see Gangster Squad they are not going to see a film like The Godfather, The Goodfellas or even L.A. Confidential. This is not a broody, serious mob film. Of course, there is a very serious story line, lots of graphic violence, wise cracks and one-liners you expect to see in an entertaining gangster film. But, Gangster Squad is also quite funny and almost feels more like an Ocean's Eleven style of film than a traditional mob film. It is more of an homage to the genre and the 1940's era, rather than trying to honestly depict it. The other thing to remember is that even though the story is based on some elements of truth, it is absolutely fictitious and almost fantastical, especially with some of the shooting scenes. I'm thinking of one scene in particular (not a spoiler) where Ryan Gosling's character hides behind a wall and starts shooting his gun aimlessly over his head and manages to kill some bad guys. So, if you can accept these conventions and skew your expectations accordingly, you will enjoy Gangster Squad because it is actually a lot of fun.
Based on former LA Times editor Paul Lieberman's non-fiction book, Gangster Squad is set in Los Angeles in 1949. Sergeant John O'Mara (Josh Brolin) is a World War II hero chosen by police chief William Parker (Nick Nolte) to lead a covert unit to bring down former boxer turned mob boss Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) who has crooked police officers and judges on his payroll. O'Mara assembles a team including womaniser Jerry Wooters (Gosling), technology expert Conwell Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi), ageing gunslinger Max Kennard (Robert Patrick), knife wielding cop Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie) and rookie Navidad Ramirez (Michael Pena). They engage in guerilla warfare to destroy Cohen's violent reign of power and crime that includes prostitution, drugs and bookmaking. Meanwhile, Wooters tries to woo Cohen's girlfriend, Grace Faraday (Emma Stone), which only serves to complicate their task further.
A problem many will have with this film is the minor plot holes. Events seem to happen rather quickly and the audience doesn't really learn how some events lead to another. Some better script writing would have fixed this. I also would have liked to have seen more character development for our heroes. We get a short introduction during the recruiting phase but not much more beyond that. Stone's character is also an enigma. We never really learn how she caught Cohen's eye or why she would be involved with him or Wooters. All we know is that she came to Los Angeles to be "a star".
Having said that, seeing this cast together is what really makes this film appealing. Sean Penn is his usual brilliant self. He makes Cohen look like a complete maniac but it's entertaining to watch. Josh Brolin is a commanding force and is so smooth that he suits the 1940's era well. Gosling is also charming and isn't even really trying to act here. He's basically being himself and there were more than a few women drooling with appreciation at the cinema. Ribisi has become one of my favourite actors in recent years. He seems to be able to do just about anything, but he was underused in this film. Mackie and Pena provide a few laughs too but they seem to be there as the token black and Hispanic characters. It would have been nice to give all of these good actors a chance to shine in the film.
Despite it's flaws, I enjoyed Gangster Squad. It is a simple mob film with a great cast. It won't become a classic of the genre, but it is still entertaining.