Mickey Cohen (Penn) has LA by the balls. With the crime boss controlling police and judges, who can stop him? Answer: a team of fearless cops who go by the name of the Gangster Squad.
Is The Untouchables untouchable? Gangster Squad director Ruben Fleischer has set out to prove not. His slick, all-star film takes the same dynamic as Brian De Palma’s Chicago classic — law-enforcers go off the books to battle a gangster on his own dirty terms — and transplants it to LA, aiming for something bigger, glitzier, nastier. But while it’s not lacking in visual razzle-dazzle or blood, story-wise it rarely manages to shock or excite.
Where it does succeed, though, is with its villain. In The Untouchables, De Niro’s paunchy Al Capone put a baseball bat to foul use, but Sean Penn’s Mickey Cohen has even more lurid enthusiasms: dining on roast peacock, quoting Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, world-class swearing (he arrives at a raided brothel snarling, “My whole crop of cunt is ruined." Penn, wearing a prosthetic beak, has the time of his life. Behold as Cohen, in full view of the Hollywood sign, commands dogs to feast on a slain man’s innards. That’s the LA way.
It’s a shame the good guys are less sharply drawn. Josh Brolin gets the Kevin Costner role as soldier-turned-cop John O’Mara, putting the team together. But Brolin is lumbered with patches of dreary exposition and a no-fun wife (Mireille Enos) who doesn’t want him in harm’s way — until, without much explanation, she spins on a dime and becomes Gangster Squad cheerleader. John has the right mix of Dick Tracy jaw and wholesome air, but Brolin seems hemmed in by the character’s white-knight righteousness.
More fun is to be had with his crew. Michael Peña forms a sparky double-act with Robert Patrick; the latter’s sharpshooter, a moustachioed holdover from the Wild West era, dubbing his Mexican sidekick ‘Hopalong’ and mercilessly ribbing his takedown skills. Giovanni Ribisi is a nebbish surveillance expert, and Anthony Mackie looks good in a hat.
But the big selling-point is Ryan Gosling, who gets many of the best moments as the amusingly named Jerry Wooters. The romantic subplot between Gosling and Emma Stone (a good-time girl who’s wound up on Cohen’s arm) may seem a little bit like Crazy Stupid Love in fancy dress, but the pair’s chemistry still scorches, with writer Will Beall giving them some choice repartee:
“Let me guess: you want to take me away from all this and make an honest woman of me?”
“No, ma’am. I was just hoping to take you to bed.”
Like that chat-up line, the film ain’t subtle: Nick Nolte rasps orders as a fire-breathing police chief; folk gulp down slugs of bourbon from ever-present hip flasks; glass seems to shatter every ten-and-a-half seconds. This is crime history retold as comic-book pulp. And Fleischer, who debuted with the astonishingly self-assured Zombieland, provides enough visual élan to — just about — make you forget how well-trod these dirty streets are. It’s no LA Confidential (which featured Mickey Cohen dancing the Lindy Hop), but does have the novelty of a greenscreen-assisted car chase that plays like a ’40s Fast Five.
Another of the movie’s big set-pieces, a wholly invented shoot-out at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, was shitcanned by Warner Bros. after the Aurora massacre and reshot as an equally ambitious showdown in Chinatown. Fortunately, it hasn’t hurt the movie: the new sequence expertly ramps up the suspense (and predictably features the sort of annoying firecracker-flinging kids who only appear in movies at very tense moments) and keeps its climactic, Tommy-gunning action clean and clear. This is proof that Fleischer’s nondescriptly directed Zombieland follow-up 30 Minutes Or Less was an unfortunate blip — if the director doesn’t get offered a big superhero movie off the back of this, we’ll be surprised.
Gangster Squad is perfectly decent entertainment: it possesses a frequently witty script, a roster of likable, cool-looking stars, fizzy choreography and Sean Penn out-hamming Mr. Pricklepants. Yet there’s the lingering feeling that this is a safe studio film as opposed to a story that was burning to be told. Every beat is hit with mechanical efficiency, rather than taking risks and roaring with ambition. Not something you’d say about a Brian De Palma film.
Sean Penn's not been this fun since Jeff Spicoli and there's plenty of rip-roaring action, but Gangster Squad proves a minor entry in the annals of LA noir.