A Film Review by Tim Riley
GANGSTER SQUAD (Rated R) Filled with violent gun play, the crime thriller “Gangster Squad” arrives in theaters after a six-month delay as the result of the studio’s desire to avoid a backlash in the wake of the shootings in Aurora, Colorado.
As it stands, the gangster story set in the grimy world of post-war Los Angeles, circa 1949, no longer includes Tommy guns blazing in a crowded Graumann’s Chinese Theater. That’s been replaced with a Chinatown shootout. Notwithstanding director Robert Fleischer’s concession to public sensibilities, “Gangster Squad” inhabits the macho world of hard-boiled cops engaged in an all-out war with a particularly nasty breed in the criminal underworld.
Similarities to “The Untouchables” abound, as Los Angeles Police Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) decides to put together an off-the-books task force to take down a criminal boss, in this case the infamous Mickey Cohen (a snarling Sean Penn).All doubts about the sheer depravity and vile nature of a vicious Mickey Cohen are dispensed almost immediately. A gruesome scene of dismemberment of a rival gangster beneath the Hollywood land sign is disturbingly graphic.
Pushing back against the Chicago mob, Cohen is determined to run drug, gambling and prostitution rings with an iron-fist and without interference from outside forces To hat end, Cohen has many corrupt cops and judges in his pocket, and the incorruptible Chief Parker has no choice other than to recruit an elite squad that can operate outside the parameters of legal authority. For Chief Parker, the streets of Los Angeles have turned into a war zone where the traditional rules don’t apply. He finds his team leader in a World War II veteran of impeccable integrity and gung-ho attitude.
The square-jawed Josh Brolin steps in as Sgt. John O’Mara, a fearless enforcer of the law regardless of the consequences. His pregnant wife (Mireille Enos), though, is not too keen about his often reckless behavior.
With the LAPD tainted by many dirty cops doing the bidding of Cohen and his thugs, Chief Parker instructs O’Mara to put together his own team of trustworthy, honest enforcers. O’Mara ends up with a ragtag group that might be called the Dirty Half-Dozen by the squad’s detractors. His top pick is Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), an honest cop with a dim view of authority who also has some shady friends.
Wooters is also the most colorful, as well as brazenly bold, character. For one thing, this ladies’ man is only too willing to seduce Cohen’s main squeeze, a femme fatale by the name of Grace Faraday (Emma Stone). The romantic subplot between Wooters and Grace adds some edge to the cat-and-mouse game between the gangster squad and its quarry, but mostly it allows Emma Stone, the striking moll, to look terrific in period costumes.
Meanwhile, O’Mara and Wooters are capably assisted by a decidedly mixed crew, in terms of heritage as well as skills. The real veteran of the group is Robert Patrick’s Officer Max Kennard, a relic of the Old West who loves his trusty six-shooter.
Kennard’s sidekick is young Officer Navidad Ramirez (Michael Pena), the rare Mexican member of the police force. Officer Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie), looking great in a hat, brings experience from patrolling the heavily African-American community in South Los Angeles. The oddest fit to the gangster squad is the nerdy Officer Conwell Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi), a surveillance expert who handles the technical aspects of the illegal wiretapping of Cohen’s office and home.
“Gangster Squad” is well-served by an outstanding cast, but the chewing of the scenery is done almost exclusively by the sneering and violently hotheaded Sean Penn, who often looks like his head is about to explode.
The action is mostly about the squad blowing up Cohen’s betting parlors and houses of prostitution, with a great chase of a drug shipment thrown in for good measure. There’s also a jarring street battle in Chinatown with machine guns blazing away. A shootout in the lobby of the Park Plaza Hotel decorated for the Christmas holiday is choreographed to a ballet of flying bullets, with the nice touch of the slow-motion visual of tree ornaments shattered by gunfire.
Some critics are saying that “Gangster Squad” compares unfavorably with Brian DePalma’s “The Untouchables,” a film with the similar theme of an incorruptible law enforcement group fighting organized crime.
Having not watched the DePalma film since its release in 1987, my recollection is too hazy to offer an opinion of the comparable merits. My advice is to watch “Gangster Squad” unencumbered with preconceived notions if you like the gangster genre.To be sure, “Gangster Squad,” loosely based on true events, takes great liberties with actually happened. Nonetheless, it’s an enjoyable bit of pulpy film noir action with plenty of gunplay and gangland violence.