Gangster Squad (review)
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing
I’m “biast” (con): the trailer didn’t inspire me
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
Gangster Squad! In color! If L.A. Confidential were a comic book, this is the movie spun outta that: blustery postwar mythologizing about the violent birth of the modern metropolis, all pulpy-bright even when it’s night, bursting with violence that swings from the chillingly noirish — a simple, unannounced gunshot to the gut — to gruesome torture-porn contemporary: the squeamish among you might want to close your eyes during the opening mob-execution scene. Gangster Squad! It’s half preposterous nonsense that cannot possibly be entirely true even as it purports to be, and half knowing nod to the fact that (sometimes) preposterous nonsense is more true than fact, and half simple grunting satisfaction in wham-bang cops-and-robbers action. No, it doesn’t add up, but neither does Gangster Squad, which shouldn’t work but does. I kinda love this movie for its cheerful, ridiculous sensationalism.
I can’t not love a movie about which I cannot decide if the garish, overblown villain is a work of genius or lunacy. Sean Penn (The Tree of Life, Milk) as 1949 Los Angeles mob boss Mickey Cohen — the actor is wearing some of the most deliciously godawful facial prosthetics ever, or else he’s gone totally to pot — doesn’t just swagger through Gangster Squad: he wallows in the swaggering with the same kind of demented glee one sometimes sees on the face of a small child wearing a dinner that should be safely contained on the inside, not slathered all over the outside. Yet there’s no denying the gaudy, awkward fact that Cohen blasts at those around him, both literally, roaring his felonious philosophy at his minions, or figuratively, via his wealth, power, and celebrity: that nothing better represents the entrepreneurial, get-rich-quick, live-the-good-life spirit of America than organized crime. It is Cohen’s “manifest destiny,” he gloats, to rule the entire West Coast and get even more obscenely filthy rich in the process.
Who will stop him? Incorruptible LAPD chief William Parker sics incorruptible Sergeant John O’Mara on Cohen, instructing the impossibly square-jawed (again, literally and figuratively) lawman to bring down the mobster via urban “guerilla warfare.” It’s the only way, what with most of the cops, most of the brass, most of the judges, and most of the politicians in Cohen’s pocket. No one will issue a warrant on Cohen; no one would testify against Cohen anyway. But if Nick Nolte (Arthur, Tropic Thunder), as Parker, is operating on a par with Penn, doing a hilarious impersonation of Nick Nolte, Josh Brolin (Men in Black III, True Grit) as O’Mara has never been more genuinely, warmly appealing as a tough guy with a noble heart, navigating even the most cornball of situations with charming old-fashioned heroic aplomb. (Our introduction to him comes straight out of the Hollywood Book of Dreams and Nightmares, and features a pretty young blonde just off the train from Naiveté, Middle America, with stars in her eyes who needs rescuing.) He collects around him a crew of Good Cop Superfriends whose pan-ethnicity may or may not be accurate to the period, but who cares when Anthony Mackie’s (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Man on a Ledge) drug-hating beat cop gets all the best snidely noirish one-liners, and the awesomely awesome Michael Peña (End of Watch, Tower Heist) is just here at all?
Can O’Mara’s real squad — as allegedly uncovered by journalist Paul Lieberman in the nonfiction book this is based upon [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.] — really been so perfectly pulpy as to also include a cop who fancied himself a Western gunslinger (Robert Patrick: Trouble with the Curve, Safe House) and another who was an early geek (Giovanni Ribisi: Ted, Contraband), introducing the wonders of audio surveillance to his law-enforcement fellows? Can it really have included someone as snarkily nonchalant as Ryan Gosling’s (The Ides of March, Drive) Sergeant Jerry Wooters, who just about steals the film with his unexpected “sheep in wolf’s clothing” feyness, like a Tolkien elf vacationing as a noir sidekick? (Toldja the whole shebang was all completely absurd.) If the women get as short a shrift as is typical in such boys’ stories, then at least Emma Stone (The Amazing Spider-Man, The Help), as Cohen moll turned Wooters’ girl, and Mireille Enos (the American version of TV’s The Killing) as O’Mara’s wife, give as good as they get in thankless roles.
It’s all kinda the sort of gangster movie you might expect from Ruben Fleischer, the guy who gave us the resigned-to-the-apocalypse horror comedy Zombieland (and, oddly, also the infinitely less satisfying crime caper 30 Minutes or Less) and screenwriter Will Beall, a writer and story editor on sarcastic cop show Castle. This isn’t a comedy, of course, but it’s as if they couldn’t quite bring themselves to keep a completely straight face, either. Which probably the best way to play a tale that is this outrageous no matter how far or how close it is to reality.