The trailer for Gangster Squad started appearing in early summer 2012 and it was, in a word, awesome: Josh Brolin beating up bad guys in a fedora, Ryan Gosling dropping slick one-liners to bed Emma Stone, Sean Penn emptying his Tommy Gun in slow motion, a bombastic Jay-Z song from Ridley Scott’s American Gangster soundtrack playing in the background… I was sold. But due to the tragic events in Aurora last summer, the trailer was pulled from previews at theaters, re-shoots were scheduled to replace a climactic action sequence originally set in Graumen’s Chinese Theatre, and Gangster Squad was delayed substantially from its original September 7th release date in order to distance its violent hyper-reality from the very real catastrophe. Typically, delays and re-shoots spell certain doom for a movie, but I’m happy to report that Gangster Squad delivers the pulpy fun that its trailer had promised all those months ago.
Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) is a former boxer and Los Angeles transplant gangster who believes that the city belongs to him and will stop at nothing to fulfill that destiny. As Cohen’s power grows through a multitude of legal and illegal activities, law enforcement is rendered impotent in their ability to stop him; Cohen will either buy or kill anyone in his way (rather creatively, might I add). Police Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) enlists Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), one of the last good cops in town, to put together a band of soldiers to wage war against Mickey Cohen before it’s too late. O’Mara’s squad includes do-gooders affected by Cohen in one way or another: a beat cop (Anthony Mackie) trying to plug Cohen’s drug supply to his district, an Army Intelligence Officer (Giovanni Ribisi) who wants to secure a safe future for his children, and a famous Texan cop (Robert Patrick) with notorious gunplay skills. O’Mara’s well-dressed war buddy, Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), isn’t as interested in saving what he believes to be an already-corrupted city; that is, until he falls for Mickey’s etiquette consultant, Grace (Emma Stone). Together, O’Mara and his team attempt to cripple Mickey’s operations in an effort to take back their town before Cohen and his thugs own the city and everyone in it. The straight-forward storyline lends itself well to provide ample action sequences and epic showdowns, but it also poses the question: how far must a good man go to defeat an evil one?
What Gangster Squad lacks in complexity it certainly makes up for in style. The costumes and set design absolutely nail the period, and the dialogue has a certain 1940’s swagger to it without being overly corny. The all-star cast, especially Sean Penn, are having a great time with their roles and are a blast to watch, even if the characters are rather one-dimensional. The universe of Gangster Squad exists somewhere between Dick Tracy and The Untouchables: it is ultra-violent but never grotesque, the personalities are over-the-top without being cartoons, and the tone is even decidedly tongue-in-cheek at times to inject some humor into the otherwise serious proceedings.
Don’t get me wrong: L.A. Confidential this film is not. But when expectations are properly tempered and it is viewed as fun popcorn fare, Gangster Squad may end up as one of my favorite guilty pleasures this year.
Gangster Squad opens today in Philly-area theaters.