Gangster films have been a staple in Hollywood since the 1930s, depicting the struggle between cops and goons of varying intelligence and guile in brutal fashion. From the influential 1931 benchmark The Public Enemy to modern classics such as Goodfellas, filmmakers have set the bar high with movies that gave us memorable characters and painfully dark storytelling. Gangster Squad is not one of these movies. But it doesn’t have to be, and taken on its own merits it’s a fun ride.
Loosely based on a true story and set in 1949 Los Angeles, Gangster Squad tells the story of a small band of honest cops who were tasked with bringing down boxer-turned-gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn). Cohen has almost every lawman and judge in his pocket, but he doesn’t count on a determined police chief (the always gruff Nick Nolte) taking matters into his own hands. World War II veteran John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), easygoing womanizer Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) and a host of unappreciated cops wreak havoc on Cohen’s operation. But when Cohen strikes back, things take a nasty turn.
If you are searching for a film with rich characters, witty dialogue and world-class acting, look elsewhere. It’s a clichéd film populated with one-dimensional characters who are there to look nice and kill bad guys. None of the cops have any measurable flaws, and Cohen is a wildly unsympathetic mobster who enjoys every awful thing he does. The talented Emma Stone, playing Cohen’s trophy girl and Wooters’ love interest, is wasted as eye candy. The script is paper-thin, displaying a childishly black-and-white approach to morality, and containing an alarming number of uses of the word “okay.” Shakespeare this is not.
Instead Gangster Squad’s great success is its ability to make me still enjoy watching it, despite its flaws. For one, the cast is clearly having a ball. They enjoy delivering the corny dialogue, and they squeeze humor and even some pathos out of patently absurd moments. Robert Patrick’s grumpy gunslinger is a particular treat, and his interactions with the underused Michael Peña are great. Penn hams it up as Cohen, but there is something mesmerizing about watching an Oscar-winning actor shamelessly chew the scenery — think Nicolas Cage.
Though the camera can get shaky, the action is another highlight of this inauspicious film. The stylized gun fights and car chases are thrilling to watch. Firearms blaze wildly with no thought given to magazine limits; the scenery crackles and explodes around the actors, and yes, there is even slow motion. The violence is brutal, but it doesn’t seem out of place with the gaudy tone of the movie. Let’s just say those with delicate stomachs should look away when the power drill comes out.
If you don’t go into the theater looking for The Godfather, you will not be disappointed. Gangster Squad’s glossy style, overblown story and hammy dialogue will keep you entertained.