Gangster Squad is a second-tier variation on the Kevin Costner version of The Untouchables, more violent but far less surprising as it strikes the familiar notes of a cops-vs.-crooks saga while never digging below the surface in either its characters or ideas. It is content to offer a cartoon-like series of big action sequences featuring a noteworthy cast.
The movie is based on a series of articles (later adapted into a book) by Paul Lieberman of the Los Angeles Times, who in 2008 chronicled the real-life gangster squad, an under-the-radar Los Angeles Police Department unit bent on keeping organized crime out of the city, with mobster Mickey Cohen a particular target. While the screen version drops a lot of real names, including Cohen (played by Sean Penn), police chief William Parker (Nick Nolte) and squad members John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) and Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), the film diverges considerably from fact, even when Lieberman’s factual account was more interesting.
Cohen has seized control not only of the Los Angeles underworld but the city itself, with judges and lawmen in his pocket. A frustrated Parker turns to one honest cop, O’Mara, to set up a squad, unknown to the public, whose job is to smash Cohen’s organization by any means, legal or illegal. O’Mara then puts together a team including Wooters, a cynic and nightlife-loving contrast to the straitlaced O’Mara, and other tough guys played by Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, Michael Pena and Cleveland’s Robert Patrick.
The group’s pursuits are played for comedy early on, for example when they stage a bandit-style attack on a Cohen joint only to find uniformed, gun-wielding officers in attendance. The change in tone from the graphic early violence in the film, including the tearing in half of a Cohen rival, is a bit startling, but perhaps not surprising when you remember the director is Ruben Fleischer of Zombieland.
Still, the squad scores some early success, making Cohen ever more intent on bringing it down. So we follow the arc from good guys winning to good guys losing to a big mano a mano finish. Along the way there are nods to the characters’ outside lives — O’Mara has a pregnant wife (The Killing’s Mireille Enos) and Wooters is tangled up with one of Cohen’s women (Emma Stone). And every now and then someone wonders out loud whether the squad’s tactics are as bad as Cohen’s, though the wondering never leads to any action, even after one confrontation leaves plenty of innocents bloody on the street.
That confrontation, by the way, is a change from an earlier version of the movie. Gangster Squad was originally set for release last fall and an early trailer for the movie included a shootout in a movie theater. After the shootings in an Aurora, Colo., theater in July, the trailer was yanked, the premiere postponed and a new sequence was shot to replace the theater scene.
Still, the movie as a whole seems uninterested in anything more than making a lot of noise. Nor is the cast consistently engaged. Penn certainly tries to make the most of Cohen’s menace, and Patrick has fun as the squad’s tough old coot. But Gosling and Brolin seem to be holding back their best moves, with Brolin too stolid to be compelling; Mackie, Nolte and Stone have almost nothing to work with. Of course, giving them something would suggest that the movie was actually interested in character, or in coherent plot. If you want those, go to Lieberman’s work. If you want to see a lot of high-volume gunplay, settle for the movie.
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online blog, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or firstname.lastname@example.org.