Movie Review: 'Gangster Squad'

Ed Symkus

Yes, there was an actual gangster squad in Los Angeles throughout the 1950s. In real life, and in this fictionalized film, they were a group of cops who worked in secret, under Police Chief William Parker, with the idea of, in the words of the chief (played by gravel-voiced Nick Nolte), “waging a war for the soul of Los Angeles.”

The battle at the focus of the film is against bad guy Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), a vicious man with a boxing background, a very short fuse, and a penchant for blood. In the film’s opening moments, under the old Hollywoodland sign, he has his goons chain a sworn enemy, by feet and hands, to two cars, then has him torn in half.

The good guys are headed up by Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), a usually even-tempered cop who can, with or without permission, easily slip into take-no-prisoners mode, and show a ruthless streak as strong as Cohen’s.

This a brutal film that, early on, is satisfied with having its characters throw fists more than fire weapons, but eventually morphs into a parade of blazing guns. Oddly, the script is also peppered with some oddball humor that helps take the edge off. But violence is never very far from center screen, and the filmmakers save most of their ammo budget for a huge shootout at a Park Plaza showdown near the end.

“Gangster Squad” isn’t intended to be a history lesson, and the opening frames reveal that it’s only “inspired” by a true story. It’s more of a study of two men, Cohen and O’Mara, although an eye is kept of many of the characters around them.

Brolin is terrific as O’Mara, playing him as a loving husband and soon-to-be-father who has trouble separating the call of duty from his private life, and easily earns respect from the men who serve under him. But there’s a problem with Penn in that he’s chosen to play Cohen much bigger than life, giving him a seriousness to complement both his hunger for power and his blatant stupidity. That combination of attitudes, along with some over-exaggerated facial work, make it look as if he’s a character who wandered over from the set of a Dick Tracy movie. Of the film’s other stars, Ryan Gosling, as one of O’Mara’s squad members, is a little too smooth in appearance and line delivery, and Emma Stone, as Cohen’s unwilling moll, is just distracting. Her character gets in the way of the story more than adding to it; the film would benefit without her.

Strengths include director Ruben Fleischer’s (“Zombieland”) ability to mix the violence with the humor, and to – with the exception of Penn’s misfiring – let the human side of his characters shine through, especially when dealing with the camaraderie that develops among our heroes. Costumes and production design are pitch perfect, and the film’s mood and atmosphere are brought full circle when the plot leads up to a big gunfight, but then goes beyond that, and settles on just two men – I’ll bet you know which ones – who lay down their arms, then go at each other with just their fists.