Another year, another gangster movie. With an all-star cast including Josh Brolin, Sean Penn, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, Gangster Squad is the latest in a long line of Hollywood tales about the elusive lives of the Mafia and those who fought against them.
Directed by Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland) and based on former Los Angeles Times writer Paul Lieberman’s non-fiction telling of the “battle for Los Angeles”, this nostalgic and slick piece of cinema aims to transport you back to the 1940s, when danger and Hollywood glamour went hand in hand. Does it succeed? Yes. Is it in anyway a unique approach to what we expect of a gangster movie? Not particularly.
Based on true events but with a lot of poetic licence, Gangster Squad chronicles the LAPD’s fight to keep Los Angeles out of the hands of the Mafia. In particular, the film documents police effort to take the city back from Brooklyn-born mob king Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn). With half of the local government officials and police department in Cohen’s pockets, Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) is enlisted by the police chief to work behind the law and form the Gangster Squad, a group of men enlisted to bring Cohen down using the gangster’s own unsavoury methods.
The end result is a flick that’s slick, fast paced, action packed and sometimes sexy, and lives up to its tagline ‘No names. No badges. No mercy.’ Anybody who enjoys a first person shooter game will love this movie. I felt at times like I was watching the progress of a video game, rather than a movie, the aim to bring down Mickey Cohen with an endless supply of bullets. Even some of the transitions between fight sequences felt a little bit like the narrative videos which crop up after level completion, in an attempt to give a game a sense of plot.
You should give this one a miss if you’re not a fan of blood and violence. The opening sequence, which shows a man being ripped apart by two cars going in different directions is example enough that this is not a pleasant watch. And it’s this point which might be Gangster Squad’s downfall at the box office. With concerns about gun legislation so widespread in American consciousness, thanks to no less than two tragic mass shootings over 2012, the movie could well gain negative attention for its seemingly senseless display of ‘shoot first, ask questions later’.
The studio are already prepared for this backlash though. The original release date was delayed due to a scene needing a re-shoot. Apparently it cut too close to the events which occurred in Aurora during the summer. Gangsters opening fire at a movie theatre would have been in completely bad taste, although plenty will bemoan this move as yet another example of political correctness taken too far.
Yes, in a film with many more bullets fired than words exchanged, they’ve been very careful not to cause too much upset. For the most part, shooting takes place between the gangsters and the police, with very few innocent bystanders getting in the way. And although one significant moment uses an innocent’s death as a catalyst for Jerry (Ryan Gosling) to join the Gangster Squad, few people die on screen who aren’t either working for Cohen or fighting for justice.
While the validity of this way of life is called into question several times, anti-gun activists will still hate the film’s very existence. It’s what we’ve come to expect of a gangster movie though, and to be fair to the plot, it’s not all shooting bad guys. Audience members who love a good love triangle will get their kicks too, as a very suave Jerry steals jaded Hollywood hopeful, Grace (Emma Stone) from Cohen’s arms. This plot-point wasn’t given enough screen time though, and you never feel any sense of the threat Cohen poses against Jerry, should he find out about the affair.
That’s down to a thin script though, writing which the film’s stellar cast do well to hold up. Josh Brolin, Sean Penn and Ryan Gosling are allowed the most time to develop their characters. Most of the others felt so flimsy that it would only take a gentle breeze to blow them over.
That said the two main female presences deserve a mention. Emma Stone and Mireille Enos as John’s wife Connie add wonderfully to the story, and keep it grounded in reality. But it’s Gosling who gives the stand-out performance. Once you get over the high and reedy voice coming out of his mouth, he is by far the most charming character on the scene, and received the most chuckles from my screening audience.
Gangster Squad is nothing you haven’t seen before, and in terms of the gangster genre it certainly doesn’t stand out. It does what it’s intended to do: entertain.
The Gangster Squad Blu Ray comes with some extras including commentary with director Ruben Fleischer, The Gangland Files playback mode that uses picture-in-picture to provide historical context and behind the scenes footage, Rogues Gallery: Mickey Cohen, a 45-minute documentary on Cohen himself, a short documentary on the outfits worn in the film Tough Guys with Style, and some deleted scenes.