In 1949, LAPD Sgt. John O'Mara (Josh Brolin, "Men in Black 3") had fought for freedom in WWII only to return to his home town and find it full of corruption, essentially run by mobster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn). O'Mara's the man Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) picks to work outside a system where no one can be trusted to bring Cohen down with whatever means necessary by forming his own "Gangster Squad."
You know you've got a problem when, out of a sprawling cast, Giovanni Ribisi gives one of the more understated performances. After his daringly out there (and wonderful) turn as a Robert Smith style rocker in "This Must Be the Place," Sean Penn seems to have wandered out of Warren Beatty's 1990 "Dick Tracy" and screenwriter Will Beall (TV's 'Castle') takes liberties that O'Mara never fought for. Director Ruben Fleischer ("Zombieland," "30 Minutes or Less") was forced into reshoots after last year's movie theater massacre in Aurora, Colorado, yet he serves up the type of over the top violence where bad guys wield two blazing tommy guns and hails of bullets fail to find their mark. "Gangster Squad" can be entertaining - as O'Mara's wife Connie, Mireille Enos (HBO's 'Big Love,' AMC's 'The Killing') creates the film's best character and some of the dialogue snaps and pops - but only if you accept that you're being dumbed down for by Hollywood.
And that iconic Hollywoodland sign is where the action starts as Cohen takes out a visitor from Chicago "The Hitcher" style, the ripped-in-two body finished off by wolves. Cut to another Big Bad Wolf in the form of Cohen goon Mitch Racine (James Hébert, "Looper"), preying on the pretty, naive women who arrive at the train station looking to become movie stars. This is where we first see O'Mara in action, an attack dog of a cop, especially where innocents are concerned. He practically takes down one of Cohen's buildings to save the girl (Ambyr Childers, "The Master"). When he gets home that night, Connie's none too pleased that he places his sense of honor before more practical considerations like his life, his wife and his unborn child ('you do not have permission to flop on a grenade when we're expecting company').
We also meet a cop of a different color in Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling, "Drive"), a smart guy more into self preservation. When O'Mara asks him to join his squad, Jerry tells him 'The whole town's under water and you're grabbing a bucket while I'm wearing a bathing suit.' Jerry knows people on the wrong side of the law, like Jack Whelan (Sullivan Stapleton, "Animal Kingdom") and Cohen bodyguard Johnny Stomp (as in Stompanato) and when he goes into Slappy Maxie's nightclub, he asks Jack 'Who's the tomato?' when he spies Grace Faraday (Emma Stone, Gosling's "Crazy Stupid Love" costar) at Cohen's table. Soon Jerry and Grace are an underground item, which complicates things when Jerry eventually goes gangster squad (it gets personal).
The squad itself is one of those Hollywood tropes, assembled via specialty like the "Ocean's 11" team. More interesting is that Connie is the one who puts it together behind the scenes, knowing which kind of cops will fly under Cohen's radar and help save her husband. There's Officer Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie, "The Hurt Locker"), a man who keeps his own kind of switchblade law and order in his own neighborhood, where other cops fear to tread. Officer Max 'Hopalong' Kennard (Robert Patrick, "Terminator 2: Judgement Day") is an unparalleled shot and Officer Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi, "Ted") becomes the brains of the outfit. Officer Navidad Ramirez (Michael Peña, "End of Watch") tags behind Hopalong. This squad, with one Black and one Mexican among its 1/2 dozen, seems a little 21st century PC for 1949 L.A.
Like it's squad, the film's a mixed bag. For every on-target scene, like Lana Turner being mistaken for Johnny Stamp's lookalike whore (shades of "L.A. Confidential"), there's something ham fisted or obvious. There are jokes about Burbank and a cut from a drill killing to a hamburger being flipped on a grill. The film's big climax, including a slo-mo shootout in Cohen's hotel lobby, all dressed for Christmas ("Die Hard" anyone?), involves so many bullets it's incredible any of the participants were left standing (plenty of glass ornaments explode in pretty shards, though). Even having established Cohen's prior boxing days, having the guy go mano-a-mano with O'Mara blows suspension of disbelief out of the park.
Brolin's pretty good as the straight arrow cop once we get past his guffaw-inducing voice overs (on Cohen - 'a Jew who gained the respect of WASPs through his homicidal lust') and Patrick's solid as the group elder, but this is no award winning ensemble. Gosling almost seems to give his naturally high voice a fey twist, like he's going for and failing to channel Elisha Cook Jr., and there's no believing the Jerry/Grace romance. Stone's done out like Jessica Rabbit, but there's no there there and the couple would have been caught out by the real Cohen a lot faster than they are here. The production runs the same gamut, from some beautiful period recreations like the art deco Slappy's to the terribly faux Carmen Miranda on its stage.
With "Gangster Squad" director Ruben Fleischer hasn't been able to shake the comedy genre out of his genes. The movie's too cartoony, but some of its cast show what might have been.
Robin did not see this film.
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