Movie Review: "Gangster Squad"
Rating: R (strong language, violence)
Length: 113 minutes
Release Date: January 11, 2013
Directed by: Ruben Fleischer
Stars: 4 out of 5
Many tales of gangster corruption in Los Angeles have been told, but rarely have any of those tales been as enticing as the one in "Gangster Squad." It begins with sociopathic villain Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), a former boxer with a slightly deformed face who is trying to expand his crime empire in 1949. It doesn't take long for the audience to see that he has the money, muscle, firearms, and steel will that it takes to make it happen.
At first, he runs into very little resistance, as the corrupt cops of the Los Angeles Police Department seem content to let him run roughshod all over their fair city. Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) is a grizzled veteran of the force who hatches a plan to form a task force to stop Cohen. He finds that most of the cops are either in Cohen's pocket or too scared to take him on, because they know it is tantamount to a death sentence. He finally finds John O'Mara (Josh Brolin), a former military man who has just enough guts to accept the leadership position on the task force. He goes about finding other cops to round out the new unit, enlisting Officers Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie), Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi), Navidad Ramirez (Michael Pena), and Max Kennard (Robert Patrick), as well as Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), who appear to be the only cops willing to take on such a daunting task.
They start by trying to infiltrate Cohen's inner circle, with Wooters showing a particular interest in Grace Faraday (Emma Stone), who just so happens to be Cohen's girlfriend. Wooters is a boozer and a womanizer who seems to have more interest in bedding Grace than in trying to get her to spill any information that she may have about the various rackets that her boyfriend has going. This puts the entire task force at risk, because Cohen could easily have each of them killed if he finds out that one of them is chasing after his girl. It causes friction between him and O'Mara, which ratchets up the tension, which is already very high. O'Mara and Wooters have to find a way to get along before all of their hard work goes up in smoke. As Chief Parker puts it, this is a battle for the soul of Los Angeles. Are O'Mara and Wooters up to such a lofty battle, or will they fail miserably?
It can't be easy to be the only female with a sizable role in an ensemble cast full of male movie stars, but Stone pulls off the role of Grace like a pro. She conveys the slightly aloof air of a classic film noir moll who is well dressed and perfectly coiffed. Though, on the surface, it would seem like Grace and Cohen would be a mismatch, the two really make it work. Stone also has incredible chemistry with Gosling, probably due in no small part to their previous effort as a couple in the superb "Crazy, Stupid, Love." Stone has proven her skills in comedies and dramas, but she had yet to do a period piece. Her performance in "Gangster Squad" shows that she can't handle almost any role.
The rest of the cast is superb, but Penn really steals the show with his role as a gangster that is so gleefully violent that he actually utters puns. When one of his many henchmen botches a job, he says to his other henchmen, "You know the drill," which causes them to start drilling holes in the man's body until he dies. This type of dark, bloody comedy becomes Cohen's signature throughout the film and is made believable by Penn's portrayal. With his recent turns in movies such as "Milk" and "The Tree of Life" being earnest, it is fun to watch Penn chew up the scenery as a mob kingpin who doesn't seem to have a single honest bone in his body. The best part is that Penn really looks like he is having fun, with the audience having fun right alongside him.
The final star of the film is costume designer Mary Zophres, who doesn't appear on screen at all. Every piece of clothing from Grace's elegant dresses to the cuff links looks authentic for the era. It creates a colorful look that director Ruben Fleischer takes advantage of by perfectly framing every shot. The mixture of style, story, and violence makes for an entertaining film that is as unpredictable as it is fun. Film noir is one of those genres that not all directors can do right, but with a strong script and an equally strong cast, Fleischer really delivers with "Gangster Squad."