1940's Los Angeles, the city of angels but also a city of rampant crime where everyone has a price or looks the other way. Near the end of the decade, the ruthless mob boss Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) has established himself as an untouchable public figure where not even Chief of police Willy Parker (Nick Nolte) has any power over him. Using the only means he has left, Chief Parker recruits Detective and former military officer Sgt. John O'Mara (Josh Brolin) to form an elite squad of enforcers to hit Cohen where it hurts and drive him out of town. Soon this newly appointed gangster squad begins an all out war with Cohen that can only end bloodshed.
Early Los Angeles circa the 1940's was an interesting time in American history. It almost feels like a turning point of sorts from the out of control wild west setting to the more outright law driven society we have now. It's not so much that crime has been abolished (we can only dream), but no one wears it on their sleeve it anymore. Criminals are no longer celebrities, the mob as it was is no more. So it is always fascinating going back and looking at a time when being a gangster was akin to being a movie star. Director Ruben Fleischer's new film "Gangster Squad" is a film much in the same vein as other gangster classics such as "The Untouchables" and the excellent "L.A. Confidential". If you are a fan of the era and like to see your heroes conflicted, wearing trench coats, fedoras and dual wielding tommy guns, then this is something you will likely have a lot of fun with. The only problem that keeps the film from achieving greatness alongside those other classics is how despite labeling itself as being based on actual events, it ends up being just one big lie after another when it comes to concrete facts.
Let's start with the positives of which there are surprisingly quite a few despite the films nearly fatal historic flaws. Fleischer's vision of 1949 L.A. is near spot on and gets all those little touches just right. The characters, their demeanor and speech patterns immediately sell themselves as authentic as does the many varied locations used all throughout the city that any resident of Los Angeles will recognize immediately. Helping us buy into this reality and time period is just about one of the best ensemble casts in recent memory. It's a fantastic mix of old and new Hollywood with Nolte, Penn and Robert Patrick representing three different generations of actors and Brolin along with his squad comprised of Ryan Gosling, Michael Pena, Giovanni Ribisi and Anthony Mackie holding it down for the new bloods. The only ones to get the short straw are the female characters who are sadly relegated to either eye candy or the worrying housewife.
Emma Stone, one of the most talented and in demand actresses of the moment, is used mostly as a plot device. A tool to motivate Ryan Gosling's character into whatever he needs to be at any particular moment and that is unfair to both actors, both of whom shared an immense amount of on screen chemistry together in the rom com "Crazy, Stupid, Love". Her usefulness only comes into play at the very end of the film and even then it is underplayed and kind of throwaway. Mireille Enos, in the only other female role in the film as Brolin's wife, gets it a little better however. Portraying that oh so cliche dependent wife, she comes out on top as an uncharacteristically (for the time anyway) independently thinking woman who takes charge and won't be second guessed. Helping her husband pick out his gangster squad was much more satisfying than having to hear her complain about his job and responsibilities the entire time. Although, she eventually finds herself used as a plot device by the end as well.
Despite the lack of love shown to the female characters, they're is still a lot to love about "Gangster Squad". It must be noted that this is an action film in the purest sense. This is a film with guys dual wielding tommy guns, going on harrowing car chases with grenades going off all around them, countless shootouts in the streets and an expolsion around almost every corner. Most will eat up all the action bits, but with so many outbursts of gunplay or fighing of any kind it almost detracts from the smooth charm of the era. Gunfights are always fun, but sometimes it can be a bit much after a while, especially with how downright brutal Fleischer lets his period piece get.
You will see such amazing sights as people being ripped apart by cars (and wild animals eating the remains), people being burnt alive and a whole new comical take on the line, "You know the drill" that will have you either howling in laughter or wincing in shock. While most younger audiences will shrug off the extra gore (or embrace it even), older audiences unfortunately who are usually attracted to the era might be turned off by it. But Fleischer doesn't seem to be trying to wrangle in older audience members so that shouldn't be that big of a surprise. With how little care he and his screenwriters pay to the actual historical facts revolving around Mickey Cohen and 1940's L.A. in general, only younger audiences will be able to watch the film without questioning its story that was "inspired by true events" every single second.
"Gangster Squad" not only takes liberties with the timeline and characters that populate its richly drawn world, but it outright creates its own fiction. Knowing the real history of Mickey Cohen and the gangster squad will quickly deflate any enthusiasm that stellar five star cast and immaculate attention to detail may have garnered. According to Fleischer's film (spoilers for anyone who cares), Cohen was involved in a brutal street war with the gangster squad which led to multiple shootouts and a climatic finale that involved an all out assault on the Park Plaza Hotel and Cohen having a fist fight with O'Mara in the park where he loses and gets sent to Alcatraz for murder.
Now, taken on its own merits, that is a fine and exciting way to end any movie on. The problems arise when you learn that first of all, the gangster squad was never after Mickey Cohen. They were formed to chase Bugsy Segal out of L.A. a couple years before Cohen even took over. Then there is the issue of Cohen getting arrested and booked on murder charges which landed him in Alcatraz. First of all, Cohen was never arrested by the gangster squad and he was never sent to Alcatraz. As a matter of fact, Cohen was arrested a number of times but each time was for tax evasion (the same as Al Capone) and he was sent to Alcatraz but nearly 10 years after the events in the film. So in the end, every single thing depicted in "Gangster Squad" is a fabrication, a lie, a deceit and there was no need for it.
Mickey Cohen in real life was an interesting guy, from his early years all the way to when he died in 76'. It's clear that Fleischer was more interested in making an action movie though, which is fine except for the fact that the real story that was ditched in favor of this fantasy one is ten times more interesting than watching a generic (albeit, well made) cops and robbers flick. If Brian De Palma's classic "The Untouchables" was able to include everything that Fleischer wanted to do here but still show us that Capone went to prison for tax evasion, why couldn't this one? None of this condemns the film at all, it just makes it so that you can never watch this film and think even for a second that much of any of it is true. The word "Inspired" has never been more thinly veiled as this.
If you are an action junkie then perhaps this is exactly what the doctor ordered, otherwise it is fairly void of any brains at all which is where that whole "true story" or lack there of comes into play. It has a handsome and talented cast, it looks and sounds slick and as far as action movies go it hits all the right notes. Perhaps if it was a fictional story with a fictional villain then it wouldn't matter so much about how they fudged the facts. But when you get to that point you have to wonder why tell the story at all unless there is some truth behind it. While it could never lives up to the potential that the real life Mickey Cohen's story held, "Gangster Squad" still comes through as an entertaining movie that will likely please fans of the era and action fans alike.