The very opening scene of Gangster Squad sets the tone for this brutally violent mobster movie – an unsympathetic mafioso rips his enemy in two by chaining him to cars pulling in opposite directions. That barbaric mob-boss is Mickey Cohen, Los Angeles’ most feared gangster, played by Sean Penn in this 1949-set thriller inspired by real events and real people.
Penn, offering yet another intense, committed performance, shines as the former boxer-turned-maniacal baddie who is hellbent on expanding his empire of drugs, prostitution, and extortion. With most of the city’s cops on Cohen’s payroll, it’s up to honest sergeant John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) to lead a clandestine team on a mission to shut down Cohen’s businesses through any means necessary. Predictably, one of O’Mara’s young recruits, Sgt Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), takes a shine to Cohen’s pretty moll (Emma Stone) and enlists her help in taking down the gang-lord.
Slickly shot with solid period detailing, Gangster Squad has a nice noirish feel to it, but because there isn’t a compelling script to hold it all together – mostly just a string of shootout scenes – the film feels contrived and only surface-level cool. Unlike LA Confidential which benefited from a juicy plot in addition to the atmospherics, this one is all style but little substance.
Amidst all the relentless action, it’s hard to care much for any of the characters, many of whom get short-shrifted in one-dimensional roles, particularly the young officers in O’Mara’s squad (Michael Pena, Anthony Mackie, Robert Patrick and Giovanni Ribisi). Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone get little scope to reignite the chemistry they oozed in Crazy Stupid Love, while only Josh Brolin leaves a lasting impression as the grizzled cop leading the attacks on Cohen’s empire.
Gangster Squad is by no means a bad film, but it does feel underdeveloped and half-baked. There’s real spark in the film’s key conceit – that the cops must lower themselves to the same level as the gangsters to accomplish this job – but that promise is squandered away by a clumsy screenplay that doesn’t necessarily portray these cops as living by the book even before they embarked on this mission.
I’m going with two-and-a-half out of five for Gangster Squad. This is hardly classic noir, but watch it for Sean Penn and Josh Brolin’s winning performances.