Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) is consolidating his power on the West Coast in the city of Los Angeles. Cohen is a mobster who sees the city as his destiny and the beginning of a new era in crime. Cohen and his men are willing to go to any violent extreme to ensure their power stays intact. It also means his underlings have no room for error or they could be killed on the spot. Los Angeles Police Chief Bill Parker (Nick Nolte) wants to clean up the city but has his hands tied by corrupt judges and dirty cops, both on Cohen’s payroll. He approaches a war hero who is now a policeman named John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) about starting a squad of cops who aren’t out to solve crimes but end Mickey Cohen’s reign of terror. Their actions would be unsanctioned and if things go bad they’d be hung out to dry with no support from their bosses. O’Mara agrees and begins approaching cops he can trust, including burned out buddy and fellow cop Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling). Jerry turns him down figuring it would be a guaranteed trip to the morgue but changes his mind after seeing a shoe shine boy he had become friendly with gunned down in the crossfire of an attempted mob hit of one of Cohen’s enemies. Jerry has the added incentive to help the beautiful Grace Faraday (Emma Stone) who is Cohen’s current girlfriend and also his latest love interest. The rest of the team includes old timer and sharp shooter Max Kennard (Robert Patrick) and his trainee Navidad Ramirez (Michael Pena), black beat cop Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie) and tech expert Conway Keeler (Giovanni Rabisi). Together, the team devises ways to strike at the heart of Cohen’s operation and cause the money from heroin trafficking to dry up. But Cohen has his own plans for revenge.
“Gangster Squad” is a stylish piece of trash. It has all the depth and meaning of an episode of any reality show featuring a Kardashian. But like some trash TV, audiences may find this trash film is a great deal of fun. It is rife with clichéd characters, predictability and goofy dialog yet still manages to be entertaining. The biggest source of that entertainment is from Sean Penn. Penn’s Mickey Cohen is like a coiled snake ready to strike. He lays in wait, stone still and silent then strikes with a speed and ferocity that is frightening. Cohen can order an associates death as easily as he orders dinner. His weathered face, scarred from an earlier career as a prize fighter and his rise to the top of the underworld, bears a California tan and the tired expression of a man who has seen and done things that no one should ever see or do. But that face also bears a striking resemblance to a Dick Tracy villain. It is oddly shaped and looks to be too wide at the top. He has wrinkles that seem to gather around his eyes like pigeons flocking around the feet of someone with a bag of bread crumbs. It has crags and lines that look like a river carved them. I’m not sure if Penn is just aging badly or if it’s a very bad makeup job. Either way, it is difficult to not stare at Penn and wonder what went wrong.
The rest of the cast makes their own impressions as well. Those impressions are based solely on the “types” each character is locked into. Brolin is the strong silent leader who, despite a pregnant wife at home, can’t seem to find a way to live without fighting something. His desire for action is this film’s version of PTSD. Gosling is the devil-may-care playboy who has lost his interest in doing any police work and just wants to drink and get hot babes in the sack. Of course, the love of a good woman puts him on the straight and narrow. The good woman is embodied by Stone who plays the role of the damsel in distress. She’s far too bright to be hanging out with Cohen but she got dealt a bad hand in her efforts to be a movie star. Anthony Mackie is the streetwise token African-American that the squad treats as an equal even if the rest of the world considers him a second class citizen. Robert Patrick is the grizzled old gunslinger who is about 100 years out of time. He’s always quick with an old timey quip and never misses when he shoots. Michael Pena is his protégé and doesn’t seem to mind Patrick’s character’s nearly constant bigoted comments aimed in his direction. Giovanni Rabisi is the nerd of the group. He doesn’t really fit in with the others but has skills the gang needs to get the job done. As the team was assembled I made internal bets with myself as to which characters would die by the end of the film. As if I had written the script myself, the deaths all fell in line with what I expected.
“Gangster Squad” is a perfect example of style over substance. While the sets, the costumes, the clothes and the cars are all fantastic examples of the era, the script is sloppy and thin, populated with stock characters that carry out predictable actions. What makes the film enjoyable is just how bad it is. The actors seem to be giving it their all (or in Brolin’s case, their minimum but that’s the character’s style) and the action is top notch with over the top gun fights and close combat scenes that could have been pulled from the latest Bourne or Bond film. For mindless escapist entertainment, you couldn’t do much better than this film. If you want art, go to a museum.
“Gangster Squad” is rated R for strong violence and language. The violence is graphic, bloody and sometimes gory. One of the first scenes is a man chained to two cars being ripped apart then his insides being consumed by wolves. Fist fights are often very bloody affairs, especially one that ends the movie. Foul language is common throughout the film.
“Gangster Squad” must have been a kind of déjà vu for Nick Nolte. In 1996, he starred in “Mulholland Falls” which was based on the same group of Los Angeles cops. That film had a very different story and was more warmly received by critics than “Gangster Squad.” I view the film as mindless entertainment that helps an audience forget the mundane problems in their lives. I wish more films were as entertaining while being so subpar. Usually, they just suck all the way around.
I’m giving “Gangster Squad” four guitars out of five.
Three new films hope you spend your hard earned money on them this week. Vote for the one I spend my cash on and review for you.
Broken City—An ex-cop seeking redemption thinks he might find it helping a powerful political figure prove his wife is cheating. When he finds a bigger scandal and is set up, he begins a quest for justice.
The Last Stand—A notorious and violent drug kingpin has broken out of jail and is headed for the Mexican border. It’s up to a small town sheriff to stop him by any means necessary and that means calling on help from one of the town’s more eccentric residents.
Mama—Two little girls are discovered living alone in an isolated cabin. Brought to civilization and put in the care of their uncle, it’s discovered the girls weren’t really alone after all. They were cared for by an entity they call Mama.
Stan’s Choice—Stan sees and reviews his choice of any film currently in theatres.
Release dates are subject to change and not all films may be shown in Knoxville, TN.