Gangster Squad Review

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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.