Gangster Squad (2013)

US / 113 minutes / color / Village Roadshow, Lin, Kevin McCormick, Warner Dir: Ruben Fleischer Pr: Dan Lin, Kevin McCormick, Michael Tadross Scr: Will Beall Story: Gangster Squad: Covert Cops, the Mob, and the Battle for Los Angeles (2012) by Paul Lieberman Cine: Dion Beebe Cast: Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Emma Stone, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, Robert Patrick, Michael Peña, Mireille Enos, Troy Garity, Holt McCallany, Sullivan Stapleton, James Carpinello, James Hèbert, Evan Jones, Josh Pence, John Aylward, Jack Conley, Jack McGee, Jon Polito, Yvette Tucker, Ambyr Childers.

Gangster Squad - 4 shock headlines

The opening credits announce that this is based on a true story but, despite the occasional character being based with extraordinary looseness on a genuine historical personage and the LAPD indeed once having had a Gangster Squad (though founded in 1946 rather than 1949 and structurally nothing like this one), the movie is essentially an attempt to adapt the gangster movie into the style of sci-fi shootemups like The Terminator (1984) and its legion of successors. There are also thematic resemblances to pieces like Shichinin no Samurai (1954; vt Seven Samurai), The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Dirty Dozen (1967), in that a small, off-the-books group of (effectively) guerrillas topples a mighty criminal enterprise.

Gangster Squad - 1 Cohen's moll Grace (Emma Stone)

Cohen’s moll Grace (Emma Stone) is open to persuasion to seek comfort elsewhere.

Gangster Mickey Cohen (Penn) has effectively taken over LA and its environs, with half the cops in his pocket, including some high-ranking officers as well as at least one judge, Judge Carter (Aylward). WWII veteran John O’Mara (Brolin), now an LAPD sergeant, spots one of Cohen’s men, Mitch Racine (Hèbert), inveigling a pretty newcomer to Hollywood (Childers) back to a hotel for a gang rape; O’Mara very violently busts the joint open and arrests her would-be rapists. However, by the time he gets back to HQ, Judge Carter has already issued instructions that the men be freed.

Gangster Squad - 2 Target practice for O'Mara's crew

Target training for O’Mara (Josh Brolin) and the crew.

Nonetheless, LAPD Chief Bill Parker (Nolte) is impressed by O’Mara’s efforts and instructs him to set up an off-the-books squad to take down Cohen—not to try to bring him to justice but to make war on him. Initially O’Mara plans to recruit high-flyers, but his heavily pregnant wife Connie (Enos), at first violently antagonistic to the plan, points out that the high-flyers are probably already on Cohen’s payroll. She instead picks him a team of maverick cops: Coleman Harris (Mackie), who’s on a crusade to stem the drugs trade that killed his brother; elderly trigger-happy cop Max Kennard (Patrick), who has killed over a hundred mobsters; his much younger partner, Navidad Ramirez (Peña); technical wizard Conwell Keeler (Ribisi); and one of O’Mara’s own precinct buddies, the dandified Jerry Wooters (Gosling)—who turns him down because himself part of the problem. When a young friend is mowed down in the streets by Cohen’s gunmen, however, Wooters has a change of heart.

Aiding their efforts from the inside is Wooters’s old friend Jack Whalen (Stapleton), who has some unspecified role in Cohen’s outfit. Also playing an inside role is Cohen’s mistress Grace Faraday (Stone), who has embarked on an affair with Wooters.

Gangster Squad - 6 Sullivan Stapleton as the mole Jack Whalen

Sullivan Stapleton as the mole Jack Whalen.

There ensue all sorts of scenes of carnage as O’Mara and his men raid Cohen’s casinos, have shootouts with Cohen’s thugs, seize Cohen’s drugs consignments, and do all the usual stuff; anyone capable of keeping a body count has nimbler mental arithmetic than I do. It’s clear that Cohen is able to wage the war at a political level, too: his friends are in high enough places even to threaten the toppling of Chief Parker—”I’ve had it with that sadistic bible-thumping boozer,” says Cohen. The climax is an almighty gun battle at the Park Plaza Hotel, after which Cohen and O’Mara slug it out barefist in a local park until finally O’Mara gets his man.

Gangster Squad - 7 Mireille Enos as O'Mara's wife Connie

 O’Mara’s wife Connie (Mireille Enos) isn’t sure she can take it any more.

Penn’s character is given most of the best lines. Just after the one noted above, he muses: “A cop who’s not for sale is like a dog with rabies. There’s no medicine for it. You’ve just got to put ’em down.” Even so, Penn has difficulty breaking out of the characterization the movie offers him, which is more caricature than portrait. The same goes for the other principals: they’re types rather than people. (Once you start seeing Brolin’s character as a version of Dan Aykroyd’s in the parody Dragnet [1987], you may have to take a break.) There’s some nuance permitted in the supporting roles—Stapleton as the suave insider Whalen, for example, and Enos as O’Mara’s wife—and there’s an excellent little cameo by Yvette Tucker as Carmen Miranda, but such subtleties tend to be swiftly submerged by more gunplay, car chases, beatings-up, dah-de-dah.

Gangster Squad - 5 Yvette Tucker is splendid as Carmen Miranda

Yvette Tucker is splendid as Carmen Miranda.

The critics generally disliked the movie for its lack of subtlety and rather muddled plot; it works best if, as hinted above, it’s regarded as primarily a spectacular shootemup. Almost everything is done with a sort of hi-gloss stylization, especially the action scenes, as if in homage to video games; there’s a feeling that the wry, near self-parodic stylization of Warren Beatty’s DICK TRACY (1990) is here being taken more seriously. This has the effect of distancing the depicted events, which makes the violence far less disturbing but also, of course, dilutes the excitement of the thrills ‘n’ spills.

Gangster Squad - 8 The final shootoutThe final shootout.

In the earlier movie MULHOLLAND FALLS (1996), which covers similar territory, the role analogous to that of Brolin in Gangster Squad was played by Nolte. When the two actors interact here one can hardly help but notice the similarities.


Gangster Squad - 3 Brolin and Nolte, 2 peas from the same pod

Brolin and Nolte — peas from the same pod?


On Gangster Squad (+ UltraViolet Digital Copy)

2 thoughts on “Gangster Squad (2013)

  1. “…the movie is essentially an attempt to adapt the gangster movie into the style of sci-fi shootemups like The Terminator (1984) and its legion of successors.”

    I absolutely agree with that John, as I do on the observation that Penn had the film’s best lines. I guess I find myself on the side of most of the critics on this one, though there certainly were some splendid set pieces and some style. The problem was banal writing and over-the-top violence that didn’t ring true.

    As always, a great piece of writing here John!

    • Many thanks as always for the kind words, Sam.

      I seem to be alone in thinking the movie had any redeeming features whatsoever!

      I’ve just been posting a new entry that I felt might have particular interest for you . . .

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