Gangster Squad Movie Review

by Katie Gile
Smeared with corruption, soaked in blood and set morally ablaze by the fire of Tommy guns, 1949 Los Angeles was squirming beneath the thumb of Brooklyn-born thug Mickey Cohen. The only thing between Cohen and utter domination of the City of Angels was a small outfit of policemen, known as the Gangster Squad.
Freely adapted from Paul Lieberman’s book of the same name, Will Beall’s screenplay tells its own version of Cohen’s bloody rise and violent fall.
The result is one of the most slick, gruesome and stylish films I’ve seen in years.
Director Ruben Fleischer masterfully handles both the gritty and glamorous facets of the period, balancing Golden Age witty barbs with noir stylized violence. His guidance of a tremendously talented group of actors and an excellent script make for a film that is as smart as it is gutsy, with the pop and spectacle to attract a crowd.
Fleischer’s film made headlines before it ever opened when Warner Brothers ordered the reshoot of a violent sequence in the wake the Aurora, Colorado massacre. The original sequence and the shot in the original trailer depicted four of Cohen’s thugs firing machine guns through a movie screen into a crowded movie theater. Because the sequence in the movie too closely imitated the real-life tragedy, the original scene was scrapped and an alternate weaves seamlessly into its place.
Watching Gangster Squad, audience members might feel as though they’re watching the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday take on cowboys in the OK Corral as bullets cloud the air and blood drowns the streets. And like that infamous Arizona showdown 70 years prior, the Gangster Squad dukes it out against Cohen’s thugs to restore justice in Los Angeles.
Perhaps what works best about the Squad may be that it barely works at all. Composed of policemen hand-selected by Sergeant John O’Mara and his plucky wife Connie (Mireille Enos), they’re more like the Mystery Men than the A-Team.
Josh Brolin is stellar as the hard-nosed O’Mara who leads the Gangster Squad in battling Cohen. Brolin’s machismo is well-suited to this role in which he must take on the most dangerous man on the West Coast. He serves as an anchor to a story full of artistic license and stylization, offering gravity and grit to the Gangster Squad.
Keeping things snappy and slick is Ryan Gosling, who turned in a soulful performance as the cynical Sergeant Jerry Wooters. A character type very familiar to the Gosling, he slips easily into the fast-talking position of O’Mara’s right-hand man. Gosling is emotionally present, offering street smarts, muscle and a smart mouth.
Rounding out the Gangster Squad were Anthony Mackie as Coleman Harris, Giovanni Ribisi as Conwell Keeler, Robert Patrick as Max Kennard, and Michael Pena as Navidad Ramirez. Each man had his own duty and function within the group, and gave the audience a group worthy of watching.
Sean Penn’s transformation into the despicable Mickey Cohen is unbelievable in the best sense. He chews scenery, delivering most lines through a slur or snarl, but we just don’t care. As Cohen’s resources are systematically cut off, Penn thunders around L.A. and steals the scene at every turn. Though his performance may become infamous for the bulky prosthetics designed to resemble Cohen’s own battered face, Penn’s uncanny representation of the vicious former prizefighter is nothing less than spellbinding.
Balancing the bombastic leading men with satin-draped steel is Emma Stone as Grace Faraday. Stone channels both Grace Kelly and Jessica Rabbit in this supporting role, establishing herself as an equal among this strong ensemble with quiet strength and easy charisma.
A few words of caution: Gangster Squad is extremely — and necessarily — violent in its depiction of a major crime era with the tendency to shed as much blood, with as many bullets as possible. The squeamish or those easily disturbed by violence may wish to view another title.
But if you can stomach the violence, Gangster Squad is a great telling of this (mostly) true story of triumph. Its slick styling, enjoyably over-the-top writing and impossible-to-ignore performances make it a compelling addition to the gangster movie canon.