I enjoyed Gangster Squad for precisely the time it was on screen. There was no subsequent banter about its characters or its story, it simply ended and that was it. Gangster Squad succeeds because it’s a fun experience. Watching the square-jawed, ripped-from-your-typical-noir Sergeant John O’Mara (Brolin) assemble and deploy an off-the-books police team to kneecap Mickey Cohen’s (Penn) gangster operations is kind of a blast. But once the stakes raise and the tides turn and the balls bounce, the film’s flaws become a bit more apparent.
It’s 1949 and Cohen’s creeping grip can be felt everywhere in the City of Angels. They speak of him in whispers in the police department O’Mara trudges into, the latest victims of his fists of justice bruised and broken behind him. “Keep your head down, don’t tease the animal,” they tell him, but O’Mara’s not shaken. This catches the eye of Police Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) who wants the incorruptible cop to defeat Cohen, an imported Chicago gangster, in the only way they know possible: by fighting dirty. The law is a funny little admirable thing, but the red tape is simply keeping the LAPD from getting the results they need. Director Rubin Fleischer (Zombieland, 30 Minutes or Less) likes blowing up things and detonating brains with technical pinache, but the bluntly-titled Gangster Squad wears its appeal on its sleeve, rather than tucked in its coat. When the film skips to beautifully choreographed, lock-step action sequences, it hums nicely. There are little flashes of technical excess everywhere. CGI where there shouldn’t be CGI. Slo-mo when there’s no need for slo-mo. Cheap digital handheld cutaways during the film’s climax.
While the existence of such an elite, unseen, unheard gangster squad gets me giddy, the movie’s real problem comes with the fact that it doesn’t take things seriously enough. O’Mara and his crew aren’t sophisticated characters by any means. Technical wizard Ribisi bugs Cohen’s place, the womanizing Gosling lures Cohen’s classy broad (the ever-delectable Emma Stone) into bed for a hopeful in to Cohen’s organization. So on and so forth.Because these characters aren’t given any room to breathe, much less grow, your investment in their well-being is considerably less. Then there’s the moment when Cohen gets wise and starts pushing back against the squad and none of the consequences feel important, like boxes are simply being ticked off someone’s clipboard. When the crew is together, there’s no relationships built that make you feel like the team misses any particular squadmate when they bite the dust. On the bright side, seeing Robert Patrick continue to get work being badass is commendable, as is Sean Penn’s great performance as a man looking to build a gangsterrific empire, one stream of bullets at a time.
Gangster Squad is no state of the art, genre-busting film, but when the illusion is at its most complete, it becomes that perfect popcorn flick and will certainly be no slouch of a rental. Expect much more and you’ll be swimming with the fishes. Something like that.