Did we really need another big, bloody, blockbuster of a gangster film?
Well, we may not need another one, but I'm mighty happy to have this one. Gangster Squad is smart, classy, brilliantly acted, creatively conceived, and surprisingly fun. It tells an important story, too, about how gang bosses build their territory and why it is so difficult to get rid of them.
The film is set in postwar Los Angeles and tells the mostly true story of Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) — a high-profile gangster from New York and Chicago who wants to make L.A. his exclusive territory — and the cops who go after him. Cohen trades in drugs, women, and gambling. A former prizefighter, he is brutal in his punishment of anyone who fails him or crosses him. He is determined to become the kingpin of the West Coast, and Sgt. John O'Mara (Josh Brolin), an honest cop and World War II vet, is just as determined to stop him. But to do that, he will have to fight half the cops in L.A., because most of them are on Cohen's payroll.
I believe in the power of the free market, but I ask you: how can profit incentive alone produce honest cops? It's hard to keep crime down when the price of cops keeps going up. The bad guys will always have more money than the good guys to buy the cops' loyalty. Cohen says cynically, "A cop that's not for sale is like a dog with rabies. There's no medicine for it. You just gotta put 'im down."
Honest cops have to be motivated by more than money. They have to care passionately about the people and the town. O'Mara and his gang have that kind of passion. Fresh out of the war, they have the military mindset of men who believe in their cause and are willing to die for it. They risked their lives to defend America's honor and her way of life, and then they came home to a city facing corruption. One of them muses, "A bright future — that's what we fought for, right? I'm not gonna let Mickey Cohen take that away from us."
Can profit incentive alone produce honest cops? It's hard to keep crime down when the price of cops keeps going up.
That kind of honor-driven determination makes the members of the gangster squad very dangerous to criminals. And to themselves. They take risks no one would accept for a paycheck alone, and they do things no cop oughta do without a warrant, a trial, and a sentence. After one particularly deadly shootout, O'Mara says, "War taught us how to fight, and now that's all we know how to do. We don't know how to live, only how to fight. We might as well be Mickey Cohen."
In many respects Gangster Squad is a classic mission movie in the style of The Magnificent Seven or The Dirty Dozen. As O'Mara assembles his team of honest cops turned rogue assassins, we get to know their personalities and strengths. Ryan Gosling is the Steve McQueen of the group. Even the way he smokes is cool, sexy, and smart. So is the stylized way he shoots. He has the sly smile and enigmatic eyes that tell us his character is as unpredictable as nitroglycerin. Giovanni Ribisi is the family man whose expertise is communications technology — sort of the "Radar" of this group. Robert Patrick is the anachronistic cowboy, a sharpshooter and soothsayer rolled into one.
Director Ruben Fleischer has a great eye for style. He uses his sets, colors, costumes, gorgeous cars, and cinematic magic to suggest a graphic novel brought to life. O'Mara has the strong jaw, steely squint, and classy fedora of a Dick Tracy. Grace Faraday (Emma Stone) with her deeply colored lips, sultry movements, and sideswept hairstyle suggests Veronica Lake — or perhaps Jessica Rabbit. Side characters such as Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) and Lt. Quincannon (Jack McGee), with their distinctive noses and gruff bravado, look like the supporting characters in a Spiderman comic book. The script, written by first-time screenwriters Will Beall and Paul Lieberman, almost falls into parody at times, but the actors carry it off without cracking a smile. The dialogue is witty and sophisticated, while the story is deadly serious. It's a winning combination.
If President Obama wanted a poster movie for his war on automatic weapons, this one is it. The film was supposed to be released in September, but after the shooting in an Aurora movie theater in mid-July, they had to pull it from distribution and rewrite the climactic scene, which originally took place in a crowded movie theater. The scene now happens on a crowded street in Chinatown, but its veiled allusions to Graumann's Chinese Theater and the film Chinatown, which was considered very violent when it was made in 1974, serve as reminders of what the scene originally entailed. I'm not so sure the change of venue makes that much difference — civilians are still being gunned down in droves in a public square — but the move seems to have made director Fleischer and the rest of the cast feel better about the film. I wonder if a similar sense of social consciousness will prompt Quentin Tarantino to remove the climactic theater massacre from Inglorious Basterds, or cause TNT and others to edit out the ending when they show it on TV. Somehow I don't think that will happen . . .
Gangster Squad is a bit bloody for some tastes, but it's easy to know when to look away if you're the squeamish type. Meanwhile, the fine acting, engrossing story, witty script, and artistic cinematography make it worth the effort.