When Mickey Cohen was arrested in Los Angeles, it was for tax evasion. I remember this because of LA Confidential, the terrific neo-noir where Danny DeVito describes Cohen’s criminal ring and subsequent arrest in the first two minutes. Gangster Squad, the new period action film directed by Ruben Fleischer, takes more liberties with history than Confidential did. Played by Sean Penn, this Mickey Cohen is a monstrous caricature who finds creative ways of murdering anyone who stands in his way. He’s an over-the-top villain for an over-the-top movie, one that replaces noir tradition with wanton gunfire.
It’s 1949, and LAPD cop John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) is tired of Mickey Cohen’s reign over the city. The cops and judges are in his pocket, so when O’Mara arrests Cohen’s thugs for kidnapping and attempted rape, they barely spend an hour in jail. The Chief of Police (Nick Nolte) sees potential in O’Mara, and orders him to organize a team that will hit Cohen where it hurts. O’Mara recruits five officers, including Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), a soft-spoken guy who easily gets Cohen’s girlfriend Grace (Emma Stone) into bed. O’Mara’s other recruits have a unique skill, whether it’s knife-play or intelligence gathering. Nothing they do is entirely legal – the squad leaves their badges at home – yet they get Cohen’s attention once they ruin his heroin trade. Angry and devious, Cohen wages all-out war against O’Mara and his men.
Fleischer, who previously directed Zombieland and 30 Minutes or Less, knows how to set up an action sequence. There is an early car chase in Gangster Squad, and while it’s not entirely suspenseful, Fleischer preserves spatial coherence better than most action directors. The gun fights, which are frequent and loud, are even less exciting since the constant rat-a-tat of gunfire requires the cops and gangsters to miss a lot. There are bigger problems, unfortunately, in terms of plot and character. Written by newcomer Will Beall, the screenplay forces A-list actors into silly, one-dimensional roles. Brolin and Gosling largely emerge unscathed; Brolin is forceful and taciturn, whereas Gosling’s laconic charm makes sense for a character that is more loving than bright. Penn unintentionally veers into comic territory: his take on Cohen is unrelentingly nasty and severe, to the point where he veers himself and the movie into self-parody.
Gangster Squad references a lot of classic cop movies. The climax, for example, culminates with protracted fight scene that borrows heavily from the end of Lethal Weapon. Still, the movie that Gangster Squad most closely resembles is The Untouchables. They are about a set of cops who are impervious to bribes, and who operate outside the law in order to catch a vicious gangster. Both movies even feature a pivotal scene at a stair case. Fleischer and Beall clearly want their movie to belong in that tradition, yet its series of pointless skirmishes make it a minor entry into a genre where better filmmakers explored what motivates these men, and why. Gangster Squad is based on a non-fiction book of the same name, but it strangely abandons real life in favor of a safe, predictable ending. Why switch from the real story at all? As DeVito’s says in LA Confidential, “Something has to be done, but nothing too original, because hey, this is Hollywood.”