Very loosely based on real people and events from 1940s Los Angeles, Warner Brothers’ new Gangster Squad lights up the screen like a tommy gun. The story is gripping, the action nonstop and the characters operatic in scale.
Sean Penn adds a new psychotic megalomaniac to the archetypal movie gangsters created by Edward G. Robinson, Jimmy Cagney and Richard Widmark. Penn’s Mickey Cohen proves even scarier because of the foaming realism he exudes from body and voice, an assault that assails the senses and the soul.
Arrayed against Mickey Cohen is a secret squad of undercover cops led by Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), a tightly wound ex-Marine who can’t turn off his fighting mode. Ryan Gosling plays the jaded, burned-out buddy who always has O’Mara’s back—and both sides of Mickey Cohen’s girlfriend, Grace, played with equally jaded restraint by Emma Stone.
The weakness in the movie lies in the dramatic license it takes with the facts. Incidents are fabricated or exaggerated to enhance the drama and excitement, but often are carried to cartoonish extremes. Director Ruben Fleischer would have done better to exercise a little jaded restraint of his own and stay focused on the powerful characters he has created.
Gangster Squad is simply too over the top. Almost every encounter results in a fist-fight or a shoot-out, and they are always extreme and sometimes ludicrous. Los Angeles is depicted as more violent and corrupt than Chicago during Capone’s heyday.
Some scenes even borrow from the old gangster movies on Capone—as well as from The Untouchables, Scarface and even Roger Rabbit. If ever there was a human version of the sultry Jessica Rabbit, Emma Stone’s Grace is it—down to the hairstyle and red dress dripping off her. One saving grace of this movie is that it now makes lusting after Jessica Rabbit seem a lot less perverse.
Fortunately, the fast pacing, sympathetic characters and constant life-or-death tension keep this juggernaut rolling too quickly to dwell on the absurdities. The result is an entertaining excursion that grabs you by the throat and tests your moral mettle as much as that of the characters. As Giovanni Ribisi’s wiretapping Officer Keeler observes, “What good does this all (extralegal activity) do if the police become as bad as the criminals in the process?”
Therein lies the rub, for the introduction of a young Darryl Gates (Josh Pence) hints at the J. Edgar Hoover-style spying and political blackmail those policies birthed.
Such messages, though, are lost in the explosions and gunshots and cleavage. But what can we say? This is Hollywoodland, Jake.