Sort of a "Young Guns"-style take on 1940’s gangster films, "Gangster Squad" is a fun and playful throwback that is as good-looking as it is entertaining.
Directed by Ruben Fleischer and starring a cast of today’s "It" actors, the film chronicles the LAPD’s attempts to get the Mafia out of Los Angeles. Sean Penn stars as the Mafia kingpin Mickey Cohen, a former boxer that is hell-bent on making LA his property. In fact, he’s bought off a majority of the town’s high-profile figures and runs a prostitution and drug ring. Emma Stone, his eye-candy trophy gal Grace Faraday, is a red-hot vision in period gowns and blood red lipstick. Her sultry voice is a nice fit for the period, and it’s also a treat to see her paired up with previous co-star Ryan Gosling (from "Crazy, Stupid, Love.") Gosling is a "golly-gee willikers" type of cop who has an eye for Grace. Always one to do the right thing, his Sgt. Jerry Wooters is an all-around good guy and only gets involved with the Gangster Squad when one of his favorite shoeshine kids is killed in the crossfire of Mickey’s goon’s bullets.
The squad is put together by Sgt. John O’Mara, played with a burly intensity by Josh Brolin. His long-suffering wife Connie (Mireille Enos) is pregnant with their first child and desperate for him to quit his dangerous job. When he announces he’s been asked by LAPD Chief Parker (an unintelligible Nick Nolte) to form an underground group to stop Cohen, she is beside herself. But plucky is as plucky does, and God love her, Connie actually helps John figure out what officers would be best to have on his team. They include sharpshooter Max Kennard (Robert Patrick), brainy nerd Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi), tag-a-long Navidad Ramirez (Michael Pena), and the cutthroat Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie.)
The group starts to throw Mickey’s plans off course, while at the same time becoming a sort of vigilante group that confuses the mob boss. This results in a number of gorgeously shot set pieces that involve old school shoot-outs in the street, car chases, and hand-to-hand brawls - all set around a sleek Los Angeles of a bygone era.
Fleisher (who directed "Zombieland") does a fantastic job of not only coming up with a clear style for his piece, but also giving it a spirited zip that enhances the theatrics of it all. This isn’t a spoof by a long shot, but it certainly is stylized and incorporates a heightened reality that gives it its punch. This isn’t a down and dirty take on the Cops vs. Mafia. This is more of a nod to the style of these types of films, but with the use of all modern-day film tricks at Fleischer’s disposal. The result is a sleek and eye-popping throwback that is consistently engaging.
Will Beal’s script, based on the book by Paul Lieberman, incorporates the same type of (slightly cheesy) dialogue one would find in a B-movie classic and uses it to good effect. Thankfully, he isn’t afraid to inject some heart and humor into the piece which allows us to genuinely care what happens to the characters, rather than simply watch the take-down play out; a trait of many testosterone -fueled movies as of late. In a way, it reminded me of a more violent "Rocketeer." They took place in the same time period, and there’s that same sense of fun and vibrancy that made Joe Johnston’s cult classic so enjoyable.
The plot is relatively thin, so you aren’t getting anything new story-wise; but sometimes that’s not a bad thing. I prefer my gangster movies not complicated by too many names, agendas, and people in suits who all look the same. Here, the cast members (both good guys and bad) are distinct. Gosling adapts a slightly high-pitched way of speaking that recalls the heroes of movies from the 1940s. Brolin is a hunky lead through and through, and Stone, while not given much to do but look beautiful and scared in equal measure, still adds some sexiness to a predominately male line-up. Penn really does chew up the scenery under his prosthetics, but again, this isn’t supposed to be ultra-realistic. There’s an intensified reality here and Penn’s saliva-spewing take on Cohen works perfectly.
It may not be vying for Oscar, but it’s a terrific way to start the new year.