Los Angeles, 1949. Sergeant John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) returns from service in WWII to find his beloved City of Angels drowning under a tidal wave of sin, orchestrated by East Coast mob boss Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn). Wanting a better future for himself and his pregnant wife (Mireille Enos), O’Mara jumps at the chance to eradicate Cohen and his influence when Police Chief Bill Parker (Nick Nolte) instructs him to form a vigilante-style task force. They must strike in the shadows, targeting each layer of Cohen’s criminal empire without leaving any trace of police involvement. Cue a series of clandestine missions and high-risk strategies that call into question whether the squad really can succeed fighting fire with fire.
Director Ruben Fleisher’s first foray into the gangster genre certainly looks the part. The men of 1940s LA walk the streets with their eyes hidden in the shadow of fedoras whilst the women sashay in curled hair and vampish red lipstick. This is a place where naïve young girls hoping to be movie stars prove easy prey for evil-minded, tommy-gun wielding crooks, and every exhalation is accompanied by a snappy line and a cloud of cigarette smoke.
Brolin’s is the sort of face that fits perfectly into this retro milieu, all chiselled frown lines and heavy brow, and the film really does belong to him. Amplifying the desperate tenacity he demonstrated on the run in the Coens’ No Country For Old Men, Brolin’s O’Mara strikes as the only character with anything really to lose, bar Giovanni Ribisi’s quietly intelligent Conway Keeler, who supplies the squad with “the brains to balance the brawn.” On the other side of the law is Sean Penn’s intense portrayal of Cohen, one which manoeuvres back and forth between reserved menace and chest-thumping rage so quickly it’s no wonder those around him don’t get whiplash. With an opening scene demonstrating just how violently vengeful Cohen can get using only two cars and some rope, Penn’s is a performance that truly convinces despite being weighed down by some dodgy prosthetics.
Such a shame then that the other characters are given so little room to shine. Ryan Gosling’s Sergeant Jerry Wooters proves a certified scene-stealer, though this seems more down to the actor’s decision to play the clichéd ladykiller as charmingly flamboyant more than anything. Completing the gangster squad itself are Gosling’s former Half Nelson co-star Anthony Mackie as streetwise Coleman Harris, Robert Patrick as straight-shot Max Kennard, and Michael Peña as keen-to-prove-himself Navidad Ramirez. Emma Stone is unfortunately given little to do but look pretty as Grace Faraday, Cohen’s attractive arm piece. Bored of her duties as gangster moll, she starts an affair with Wooters, which should be a tense subplot but is instead drowned out by the sound of all the explosive set pieces crashing around it.
It is these action scenes which provide the film with its best visuals and some of its most enjoyable moments, with Fleisher taking a leaf out of Zack Snyder’s big book of action directing, presenting his audience with slow-mo comic book style shootouts, the camera weaving between a rain of bullets to show the violent confrontations from all angles. A particularly tense moment in the film’s first act involving Wooters being sucked into a street siege, as well as an effortlessly cool raid the squad pulls in formal dinner wear whilst accompanied by contrapuntal cha-cha soundtrack are demonstrative of Fleisher’s capabilities despite his reputation for comedic fare. However, as you’d expect from the director of Zombieland, Gangster Squad is not without its brief light-hearted moments, particularly in the early stages of the squad’s formation, wherein bickering and banter show the team’s schoolboy side before the dirty work must be done.
Sure there are better gangster films, and yes, the first of the most eagerly anticipated Hollywood offerings of 2013 is somewhat disappointing. But somehow Gangster Squad keeps fighting beyond its underused A-list cast and clunky structure to secure your support for the good guys all the way to the final towering showdown. Though it may not leave that lasting an impression, it’s a slickly presented 113 minutes of unadulterated and superficial pulpy goodness. For all its flaws, Gangster Squad is still a solid piece of non-committal, popcorn entertainment.