Film Review: Gangster Squad

A wolfish Sean Penn as crime boss Mickey Cohen heads up a stellar cast for this bloody, meat-headed gangster flick whose sheer velocity and breathless illogic give it a campy sheen that should broaden its appeal.

An internal Los Angeles Police Department report once counted the number of gangland killings in the city between 1900 and 1951: They came up with 57. Roughly that many people are rubbed out in less than two hours during Ruben Fleischer’s showboating, bullet-pocked, fist-to-the-face period gangster film. Former homicide detective Will Beall’s lunkish screenplay for Gangster Squad is nominally based on Paul Lieberman’s Los Angeles Times articles about the LAPD unit that spent the late-1940s and ’50s targeting East Coast mobsters with strictly off-the-books tactics. Taking them up to Mulholland Drive and putting a gun to their ear was a standard stratagem. But the film that Zombieland director Fleischer brings to the screen is more interested in gaping flesh wounds: This gangster squad puts bullets in nearly everything that moves.

Josh Brolin, just one of many cast members in this sharply costumed film who look born to wear a snap-brim fedora, plays the squad’s incorruptible leader, John O’Mara. He’s a war veteran with intelligence and guerrilla-warfare training who thinks nothing of going on his own to bust up a whorehouse run by up-and-coming Brooklyn mobster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), whom the rest of the LAPD has given a pass to. Police Chief William Parker (Nick Nolte)—another real-life character whose resemblance to reality stops at the name—tasks O’Mara with putting together his flying squad to take down Cohen by any means necessary.

The mixed-bag posse that O’Mara assembles starts with the ridiculous—Robert Patrick as a drawling and mustachioed gunslinger whose Wild Bill Hickok persona is several decades past believable for 1949—to the simply unbelievable—Anthony Mackie and Michael Peña as patrolmen whose ethnicity is barely an issue in such a strictly segregated police department. As improbable a comic-book gang of misfits as the squad is, the ridiculousness is balanced out by the joy of watching such an easygoing band of pros (including a deft Giovanni Ribisi as their nerdish techie) go about their work. Ryan Gosling also shows up as the mellow and bedroom-eyed Conway Keeler, ice to O’Mara’s fire. He’s there to give Cohen’s moll (Emma Stone, cool as always) somebody to bat her lashes at and to deliver human emotions besides bottled-up rage and exploding rage, which are about all that O’Mara is allowed to display.

The story jumps from one fiery confrontation to the next; O’Mara’s idea of subtlety being to smash the window with his gun butt instead of his face. As the squad trashes more of the mob’s joints, Cohen snarls and snaps and offs his underlings and rivals in movie-baroque style (burned alive in an elevator shaft, pulled in half by two cars). Playing Cohen as a greedy psychopath whose bloodlust would have made a Roman emperor blanch, Penn gnaws every visible inch of scenery down to sawdust, leaving you no doubt that the final conclusion will involve an armory’s worth of weaponry and an epic fistfight. Indeed, Fleischer ends everything in a riot of blasting Tommy guns, tumbling corpses, spattering shell casings and crunched jaws. (Another violent shootout, set in a movie theatre, was cut from the film in the wake of the Aurora, Colorado killings, and a new Chinatown action sequence added, pushing the film’s original September 2012 release date to January.)

Punch-drunk on righteous violence, Gangster Squad doesn’t resemble so much the old Warner Bros. gangster flicks that the studio is trying to capitalize on the legacy of here, but rather some amalgam of Mickey Spillane and Jack Webb. As such, Fleischer doesn’t waste time noodling around in plot. Instead, he puts the metal down and just blasts through to the finish, trusting in speed, a solid cast, and the smartly polished period design to make all the implausibilities and plot loopholes whip past agreeably enough. For a film whose fidelity to the historical record makes The Untouchables look like a documentary, that’s definitely a good thing.