It’s 1949 and Los Angeles is being overrun by Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) – a ruthless mobster intent on “owning” everything west of Chicago. Cohen has people living in fear and “owns” significant stock in the police force and in the court. Afraid of losing Los Angeles, Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) assembles a team “off the books,” to drive Cohen from the streets of L.A. Sargeants John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) and Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) lead the “Gangster Squad” against Cohen’s cronies in their quest to take back the “City of Angels.” Gangster Squad is a high-stakes, high-intensity experience for those who love nostalgic cinema and neo-noir femme fatales (see that sexy Emma Stone?).
Originally set to be released last fall (September 7, 2012), Gangster Squad enters the market four months after its original release date. Following the Aurora, Colorado massacre, to appease sensitive audiences and avoid controversy, a scene involving a movie theater shooting was cut from the film and its release was subsequently postponed. While Gangster Squad is violent, there are no elements or content present that haven’t been seen before in movies. Director Ruben Fleischer’s (Zombieland) film follows the basic plot structure of a classic gangster or noir film, and offers no more violence than something like Chinatown (1974) or The Godfather (1972). Since either of those films were released, we’ve been desensitized enough to violence for Gangster Squad to be considered mild at worst.
Despite its familiar plot, Gangster Squad is dangerously appealing. Both the work of an all-star cast and the creation of a perilous and glamorous noir-esque world lend to the allure. It’s a world where starlet-hopefuls come with dreams, where detectives work to protect their city, and where the mob deals in the dark. In this world, death is common, law is crooked, and the women are sultry and deadly. Take Grace Faraday (Emma Stone) for example, she’s introduced like the classic femme-fatale – she makes her way through the night club in a slinky dress, catching the wandering eyes and boyish charms of Jerry (Gosling). She’s both powerful and vulnerable from the start and ultimately becomes a significant piece to the puzzle.
Aside from Grace Faraday, Mickey Cohen symbolizes the world around him (a former boxer, he and the world are both gritty and glorious) and is executed masterfully by Sean Penn. Penn’s abilty carries him far, for he is a fearsome villain, both in manner and voice. Whether it’s through murder, buying the town, moving drugs, or kidnapping women, Cohen is a dangerous man and Sean Penn’s unnerving performance makes him seem even more unstable and unstoppable. The danger of Cohen is balanced perfectly through Josh Brolin’s equally strong and heroic portrayal of Sgt. John O’Mara. In this instance, the hunter and hunted are on level playing field, it’s just a matter of striking first.
Original it’s not, but through its pacing, presentation of the era, and characters, this “inspired by a true story” gangster film is fascinating and engaging. Gangster Squad is an excellent crime drama running just under two hours and is rated R for strong violence and language.
Also starring: Anthony Mackie, Michael Pena, and Giovanni Ribisi.
90/100 – A-