- Rated R
All photos © Warner Bros.
Reviewed by Jason Zingale
here couldn’t be a more suitable way to describe the behind the scenes troubles of “Gangster Squad” than the popular idiom “in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Originally scheduled for release last September, the film was delayed following the tragedy in Aurora, Colorado due to a scene in the trailer (which also played in front of “The Dark Knight Rises") showing mobsters shooting up a movie theater. You can understand why Warner Bros. decided to push back the film’s release in order to reshoot that sequence, because while some have questioned the studio’s sensitive handling of the situation, it was for the best. “Gangster Squad” would have likely been overlooked amid all the early Oscar bait, but in January, it has the chance to shine as the pulpy, good fun that it is.
Inspired by real events, the film takes place in 1949 Los Angeles where Chicago mobster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) has slowly taken control of the city through organized crime, paying off every important cop, politician and judge along the way. Unable to prosecute Cohen for his crimes, police chief Parker (Nick Nolte) recruits one of the department’s last decent cops, Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), to assemble a secret task force – including fellow officers Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie), Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi), Navidad Ramirez (Michael Peña) and Max Kennard (Robert Patrick) – to take down the crime lord by doing so much damage to his operation that he has no choice but to leave. Though Wooters is hesitant about joining the group at first, when his new love interest Grace (Emma Stone) is targeted by Cohen's wrath, he becomes O’Mara’s most reliable asset.
It’s been a while since Hollywood delivered a truly great gangster movie, and although “Gangster Squad” falls a little short of remedying that, it’s still a mostly entertaining and welcome return to the genre. Part of what makes the film so enjoyable is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Will Beall’s script does a good job of balancing the drama with some brief moments of humor, while Sean Penn’s gleefully over-the-top performance as real-life boxer-turned-mobster Mickey Cohen is just campy enough without being too distracting. The action sequences are also really well done (and surprisingly violent), although the unique visual style that Ruben Fleischer brought to “Zombieland” isn’t as prevalent here as it was in that movie. The director does get the chance to play around visually in a handful of scenes, but they feel out of place in the larger context of the film.
If there’s one thing that really makes the movie worth seeing, however, it’s the killer ensemble cast that Fleischer has assembled. Josh Brolin is great as the determined police sergeant leading the squad, and it's nice to see Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone rekindle their playful chemistry from “Crazy, Stupid, Love,” even if both parts are poorly underwritten. The other supporting players may not get as much to do in their respective roles, but having top-notch actors like Nolte, Mackie, Peña, Ribisi, Patrick and Mireille Enos definitely elevates the material. The story is predictable, and it owes a lot to Brian De Palma's “The Untouchables,” but "Gangster Squad" is enjoyable in spite of all that.