, 113 m., 2013
Sean Penn (Mickey Cohen), Holt McCallany (Karl Lockwood), Wade Williams (Rourke), James Landry Hébert (Mitch Racine (as James Hébert)), Ambyr Childers (Milk Skinned Blonde), Josh Brolin (Sgt. John O’Mara), Mick Betancourt (Detective Sgt. Will Hendricks), Mac Brandt (Bruiser), Brandon Molale (Jimmy ‘Bockscar’ Knox), Michael Papajohn (Mike ‘The Flea’), Jeff Wolfe (Giovanni Vacarezza), Anthony Molinari (Lorenzo Molinari), Austin Highsmith (Patty), Ryan Gosling (Sgt. Jerry Wooters), Neil Koppel (Max Solomon). Directed by Ruben Fleischer and produced by Dan Lin, Kevin McCormick, Michael Tadross. Screenplay by Will Beal, based on the book Gangster Squad by Paul Lieberman.
May fortune favor the editor behind the trailers (pre-Aurora shooting and post) of Ruben Fleischer’s Gangster Squad, because it takes real talent to take a so-so movie like this and make it look so much better than the sum of its parts. This is a great-looking throwback to everything from The Untouchables to L.A. Confidential that ultimately falls short in the screenplay and performance departments.
Josh Brolin is Sgt. John O’Mara, a World War II vet working as an LAPD detective in 1949. Married, expecting a child with his wife, and determined to bring down local Jewish mobster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn, in scenery-spewing mode), O’Mara is one of the rare honest cops in all of Los Angeles. Recruited by Chief Parker (Nick Nolte), a less-than-popular administrator who doesn’t want Cohen to take over, O’Mara and his wife recruit a ragtag band of honest cops (including Anthony Mackie, Robert Patrick, Michael Pena and Giovanni Ribisi), who will watch each others’ backs.
The final piece of the puzzle is Ryan Gosling as Sgt. Jerry Wooters, a soft/high-voiced, hard-drinking womanizer of a detective who catches the eye of Grace Faraday (Emma Stone, in femme fatale mode), a hot redhead who is also bedding and culturally-tutoring Mr. Cohen. The results are something of a love triangle with more than a passing familiarity.
Ruben Fleischer is a talented visual stylist (Zombieland, 30 Minutes or Less) and his cinematographer, production design team and visual effects artists help render an art deco look for 1949 Los Angeles that is utterly gorgeous to behold, despite the ugly proceedings which occur against its backdrop (including the deaths of kids, the attempted rapes of women, countless murders and torturous interrogations, and all of that is before the finale – but more on that in a second). So of course the film is going to be good-looking. Indeed, at times it looks like a pastel-colored live action comic book, ala’ Dick Tracy (1990).
Where the film falters for the most part is in the screenplay by Will Beall, inspired by Paul Lieberman’s book. This is a screenplay as riddled with cliches as the production design is riddled with bullets by the film’s denouement. That being said, the wooden line readings of Brolin, Stone and others don’t really help. The only performance of distinction is by Penn, who is mired in cliche as well but gets away with it by going over the top, doubling back, and going over the top again.
Unfortunately, all his hard work and the great look of the film are chucked out the window in the film’s near-final moments. This past July, the Aurora, Colorado shootings in a crowded movie theater at an early morning screening of The Dark Knight Rises caused a similar scene to be cut and an alternate ending to be filmed for Gangster Squad. Inevitably, Fleischer and company switch to what looks like some kind of digital video (maybe High-Definition, perhaps simple home video quality) to capture the film’s big finale – a fistfight (!) between Penn and Brolin. Between the triteness of the plot’s solution and the cheap look of its rendering, all the air is finally let out of the enterprise not with a whisper but with a loud roaring deflation.