It’s like if LA Confidential and Chinatown got together and had a lobotomy: “Gangster Squad”

January 12, 2013


So, here we have Gangster Squad, a movie that promises to be like Public Enemies, starts out like Mulholland Falls and ends up being more like a remake of Mobsters. Remember Mobsters? Probably not, but that’s okay. It was like a brat-pack Godfather made back when Hollywood thought Richard Greico and Christian Slater were gonna be the next big things. Yeah, it was a weird time. Anyway, Gangster Squad is a lot like that movie in that it takes an actual historical event—in this case LAPD Chief Richard Parker’s off-the-books war on gangster Mickey Cohen—and makes it into a cheap, lurid dime-store novel. On this measure, the movie’s not half-bad. I mean, it’s not really that good mind you, but…hey, it’s January. It’s like a desert in those multiplexes.

Anyway, in Gangster Squad…ah, I kinda covered it in the opening, didn’t I? Yeah, well it’s 1949, and LA is firmly enclenched (is that a word? It’s a word now) in the grip of Mickey Cohen, former boxer, now kingpin, and soon-to-be minor figure in most of James Ellroy’s best works. Mickey is introduced overseeing the bisecting of an emissary of the Chicago outfit. Point taken: Mickey is a bad mama-jama. Played as he is by Sean Penn, in a pretty fun, hammy performance, he makes a good bad guy.

I like to think Sean was imagining he was squaring off with paparazzi in this scene...

I like to think Sean was imagining he was squaring off with paparazzi in this scene…

In order to combat Cohen’s insidious influence on LA (he has most of the judges on his payroll and the cops running scared), Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) decides to assemble a small, extralegal unit to smash Cohen’s organization (he makes it explicit that Cohen is not to be killed because someone else would take over his organization—plus, it would be historically inaccurate, but he doesn’t say that part). So he turns to tough-guy cop John O’Mera (Josh Brolin), who caught his attention busting up one of Cohen’s brothels.

O’Mera assembles his squad (with the help of his pregnant wife played by Mireille Enos who, I think, might be the smartest person in this movie). He recruits an African American beat cop Harris (Anthony Mackie), an old-timer cowboy (Robert Patrick) and his trusty Latino sidekick Navidad (Michael Pena), tech whiz Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi). Last to join is Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), a kind of ‘40s slacker, who doesn’t feel much dedication to the job until his favorite shoeshine boy is caught in the crossfire of one of Cohen’s hits. Then he comes around right quick.

Thompson submachine guns: because warrants are for wimps and the FBI.

Thompson submachine guns: because warrants are for wimps and the FBI.

Well, the cops go about busting up Cohen’s racket, badgeless and without backup. They don’t rip him off, but destroy his operations and burn the cash. The first job doesn’t go so well (O’Mera doesn’t do planning so well, but prefers to just yell his idea as the guys rush at a location), but pretty soon, they’re tearing things up, and having a ball doing it. These cops banter, crack wise, and generally make it all look fun. But you know how it is: it’s all fun and games until somebody blows up a car in Chinatown and starts trying to kill off the guys’ families.

Meanwhile, Wooters sparks up a romance with Cohen’s moll Grace (Emma Stone), which threatens to topple everything. Now, I’m using “spark” somewhat liberally as the two have all the sparks of a flintless Zippo trying to ignite a piece of soggy cardboard. Some of this is because Grace is less a character than a gear in the plot. Some of it’s because Gosling pretty much just hits his mark and poses in his period clothing like he’s doing another damn New York Times photo layout (man, they just love that dude).

"Nice tie." "Thanks. Nice hat." "Thanks."

“Nice tie.” “Thanks. Nice hat.” “Thanks.”

Cohen is attempting build a wire-transfer racket that will, in essence, make him the most powerful man west of Nebraska, so the race is on to knock him down before he can become fully entrenched. This should provide some tension, but since we know Cohen went to jail, it doesn’t.

In its early going, Gangster Squad tries for some period nuance. O’Mera and Wooters swap talk about the way the war informed their lives as men and cops. When O’Mera recruits Keeler, the cop is watching a night-time rocket flight with his kid, and tells O’Mera that he wants in on the Gangster Squad so the bright future he promised his son—symbolized by that rocket flight—isn’t ruined by Mickey Cohen (though how Cohen plans to subvert the US space program is beyond me). But none of this comes to anything once the Tommy guns start blazing.

Guys, maybe you should have meetings of your secret, extralegal group someplace OTHER than in front of City Hall.

Guys, maybe you should have meetings of your secret, extralegal group someplace OTHER than in front of City Hall.

The rest of the cast is game enough and go through the paces of their under-written roles. Truth is, though, they could play these parts in their sleep. Brolin and Nolte have some nice chemistry, and their scenes together feel like the mantle of taciturn latter-day cowboy is being passed from one raspy-voiced paragon of masculinity to another.

Director Reuben Fleischer works in a lot of needless stylization as if he was just as bored with his story as anyone else. If he had a little more intelligence behind the project (as opposed to simply the camera lens and editing room) he may have made an interesting film. As it is, he made a fairly entertaining one. You know, for a January release…

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