In “Zombieland,” director Ruben Fleischer took a well-known movie subject (zombie attacks) and turned it on its head. The film embraced the lunacy of poor civilians being hunted by the undead.
In “Gangster Squad,” the director once more takes a familiar genre—gangster movies of yore—and embraced its core elements. The film doesn’t celebrate the genre as much as it settles into it like a comfortable coat, but the result is a surprisingly fun, if clichéd, motion picture.
“Every man carries a badge,” says Sergeant O’ Mara (Josh Brolin) in a voice-over at the beginning, and the characters all seem to have their loyalty tied into some concept or ideal. O’Mara believes in justice and therefore welcomes an assignment to take down a local mobster named Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn). The year was 1949 and for far too long, O’Mara believed his beloved City of Angels had fallen victim to crooks like Cohen.
O’Mara recruits an undercover team of cops to—legally or illegally—take down Cohen and his network of nihilists. On his squad, O’Mara includes some of his fellow officers, including the reluctant Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), the overeager Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie), the legendary Max Kennard (Robert Patrick), the naïve Navidad Ramirez (Michael Pena) and expert wire-taper Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi). These men work to undermine and eventually overthrow Cohen, whose master plan of building a central book (to be used by gamblers nationwide) is close to completion.
The story seeks to replicate some of the beautifully-filmed gangster movies of yesterday. Its visuals are wonderful and will likely remind movies of grand films like “L.A. Confidential” (1997) or “Dick Tracy” (1990). At times, it seems like “Squad” wants to be in the same category as those two but this story fails to replicate their charm and ingenuity. “Confidential” had a depth and a truthful sense about it that is barely hinted at here. “Tracy,” on the other hand, had a sly, winking appeal that made the violence more bearable because it was done in a comic book style.
“Gangster Squad” isn’t like that. It superficially glazes over its characters, enjoying them for the archetypes that they are. Cohen, for instance, is an over-the-top villain, and Penn chews scenery like an actor who hasn’t eaten in a week. The most difficult character to enjoy is Cohen’s girlfriend (Emma Stone), who quickly falls for Sgt. Wooters. A wannabe actress, she is the inevitable love interest who is torn—gee, I wonder whose side she’s gonna choose—between the mobster and the police officer who promises to take her out of that life.
The story itself is well-paced and efficient, sliding from one short scene to another, but the quick pacing doesn’t take away from the lackluster story. We’ve seen characters like this in movies like this before done much better. The only jarring aspect was the brutality of some of the violence. It seemed out of place in a story that never veers too far from the genre but still doesn't take itself too seriously.
“Gangster Squad” will be forgotten in six months, but for now it's a satisfying time at the movies.