Gangster Squad (United States, 2013)

January 10, 2013
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Gangster Squad Poster

There seems to be little doubt that Ruben Fleischer, the director behind the well-received Zombieland and the less well-received 30 Minutes or Less, is a Brian De Palma fan. How else to explain the kinship that exists between Fleischer's latest, Gangster Squad, and De Palma's classic The Untouchables (with a little Scarface thrown in for good measure)? The similarities go beyond the requisite plot points that exist in all gangland stories; Gangster Squad unspools almost like a remake of The Untouchables, albeit with a souped-up ending and a relocation from Prohibition Era Chicago to post-WWII Los Angeles. There's no Battleship Potemkin homage, but there is a nod to Sunset Blvd. Gangster Squad is an unashamedly pulpy thriller that borders at times on an exploitation flick but its determination to follow The Untouchables' template (without the benefit of a David Mamet script) makes it a little too predictable to be memorable.

Steeped in blood, gore, and violence, Gangster Squad delivers what fans of the gangster genre expect from a movie of this sort. It's chock-full of "guilty pleasure" moments. Sean Penn, playing real-life mobster Mickey Cohen, hams it up expertly, channeling Al Pacino's Tony Montana without the accent. The good guys are stolid, sturdy men - paragons of virtue up against a feral villain who is so vile that even the notorious Chicago mob can't stand against him. Despite the talent of the cast, Gangster Squad isn't a "prestige" motion picture and its release date shift from September 7 to January 11 didn't damage its nonexistent Oscar chances. It's an inferior Untouchables knock-off and proud of it.

The year is 1949. Mickey Cohen is building his underworld empire in the alleys and bordellos of post-war L.A. Half the police force is in his pocket. He owns the dope and sex trades and has a plan that will give him control over all the illicit money funneling into the West. Mickey doesn't think small and he calls himself Progress. Standing in his way is the "Gangster Squad" - a group of six dedicated lawmen who work under the radar to bring down Cohen's empire by any and all means possible. Sgt. John O'Mara (Josh Brolin) gets the commission from Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) after he proves himself to be incorruptible. He hand-picks his cohorts: fellow war veteran Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling); a cop with a dim view of authority, Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie); a sharpshooter, Max Kennard (Robert Patrick) and his sidekick, Navidad Ramirez (Michael Pena); and a wiretapper, Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi).

The Gangster Squad gets off to a rough start, with two of its members stuck behind bars (leading to a cartoonish jailbreak). But, once they plant a bug in Mickey's demesne, things take a turn for the better. Their many successes are conveyed via a montage replete with newspaper headlines. Eventually, Mickey decides he can no longer afford to absorb the losses he is taking and decides to take the fight to his enemies. The results are predictably bloody, although no one brings a knife to a gunfight.

Like The Untouchables, Gangster Squad plays fast and loose with history. The real Mickey Cohen, like Al Capone, ended up running afoul of the tax code. That's wasn't dramatic enough for Fleischer, who invents a more cinematically appealing climax that includes the staple of testosterone-drenched movies: the fist fight. There's also a car chase but, perhaps because it features '40s vehicles, it feels more energetic than the generic version of this sort of thing.

The cast is upscale, with a two-time Oscar winner (Penn) and three Oscar nominees (Nolte, Gosling, Brolin) leading a group that includes one of the hottest young actresses currently working in Holywood (Emma Stone). This isn't really an actor's movie, however, so it gives the performers an opportunity to have some fun. Penn and Nolte get to do a little scenery chewing and Brolin flexes some muscle. It's not a great part for Emma Stone, who looks terrific in the period costumes but, as the woman caught between Cohen and Wooters, her thinly drawn character often looks like a deer caught in headlights.

Gangster Squad will remind everyone of The Untouchables but suffers greatly by the comparison. That's a little unfortunate because, taken on its own terms, it offers its share of lowbrow entertainment. Like any genre film, all Gangster Squad has to do is generate a little box office noise to fulfill expectations. Entering multiplexes in the icy wasteland that is early January, Gangster Squad provides a welcome burst of heat and color, even if those qualities are more illusory than real and subject to a fast fade.

Gangster Squad (United States, 2013)

Run Time: 1:53
U.S. Release Date: 2013-01-11
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Content)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1