Gangster Squad’s story is as old as the hills – or at least as old as The Untouchables – but brisk, vibrant direction, a muscular screenplay and the solid work of a well-chosen cast polishes up the clichés until they shine like a newly-minted coin.
The gangster-movie genre helped Hollywood studio Warner Bros make its fortune back in the early days of cinema, and this ‘50s-era tale of good guys and bad guys – inspired by a true story – is both a tribute and a throwback to their style.
In this case, the bad guy is mobster Mickey Cohen, played with feral intensity by Sean Penn. A career criminal and former boxer, he’s set up his crooked shop in Los Angeles and has no intention of shifting.
He’s ruthless enough to rip a man in two with a couple of speeding cars and connected enough to have the city’s powerbrokers in his pocket. Clearly some new tactics will be required to take him down.
Enter Sergeant John O’Mara (Josh Brolin, a dead ringer for Dick Tracy from some angles), a square-jawed straight arrow tough and brave enough to rough up a gang of Cohen’s goons singlehandedly.
With police chief Parker (Nick Nolte at his most growly) justifiably worried that Cohen is consolidating his power base, O’Mara is given the go-ahead to assemble a carte-blanche team of cops that will put the kibosh on the crim’s operation once and for all…by any means necessary.
Some good advice from his saintly wife (Mireille Enos, bringing snap and smarts to a potentially sappy role) sees O’Mara avoiding the high-end officers likely to be on the mob’s payroll and instead signing up a collection of scrappy mavericks skilled in intimidation, sharpshooting, wire-tapping and other vital talents.
It’s not long before the unofficial, unauthorised ‘Gangster Squad’ is making a dent in Cohen’s business. But with Cohen on the verge of putting the final pieces of his vice empire in place, he’s just as determined that he won’t be stopped.
Gangster Squad’s greatest strength is that it knows just what it is. It’s not heavily laden with subtext or even a complex storyline – it’s a straight-up crime yarn with characters that aren’t necessarily deep but are nevertheless deftly sketched and scenarios that are straightforwardly exciting, emotional or engaging.
Director Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland) and screenwriter Will Beall (a former L.A. homicide cop) do their jobs with panache, Fleischer rarely allowing his obvious yen for visual flair to get in the way of keeping the action coherent and the story moving at a steady pace, Beall giving the characters the odd interesting shading and some choice, tangy dialogue to chew on.
Brolin and Penn are well-matched adversaries, the former’s sturdy decency a good counterpoint to the latter’s irredeemable villainy (it’s refreshing to have a bad guy so unabashedly bad).
Ryan Gosling brings some nice ambiguity to O’Mara’s slightly shady second-in-command, and Emma Stone adds some smoky allure and appealing vulnerability to Cohen’s mistress, who becomes dangerously drawn to Gosling’s cop.
A sleek, unpretentious step back in time, Gangster Squad is brassy, ballsy and bloody good fun.