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‘Gangster Squad’ Review

Gangster Squad review
Warner Bros.

Dirty Harry would love ‘Gangster Squad,’ a movie about cops who operate so far outside the law they make Clint Eastwood’s signature detective look like a pencil-pushing dweeb. Assembled by LAPD police chief Bill Parker (Nick Nolte), and supposedly inspired by a true story, the members of the so-called Gangster Squad operate as judge, jury, and executioners. They don’t arrest their targets; they “wage war” against their enemy, mob boss Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn). In their quest to bust up Cohen’s rackets, the Gangster Squad brandishes about a billion guns and not a single badge. Hell, even Dirty Harry waited until the end of his movie to toss his away.

The Squad is led by World War II veteran turned LAPD Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), an incorruptible and unstoppable police officer. Early in the film, he charges into a Cohen-owned brothel and single-handedly rescues a woman who’s about to be sold into sex slavery. Does he have a warrant? Warrant, schmarrant! They’re bad dudes. O’Mara tears the place apart, earning the admiration of Chief Parker, who puts him charge of his new anti-mob task force.

O’Mara’s men will operate in secret, answer to no one, and kill whoever gets in their way. Once his team is put in place — including a boozy lothario (Ryan Gosling), a knife-throwing beat cop (Anthony Mackie), an electronics and surveillance expert (Giovanni Ribisi), a dead-eyed gun hand (Robert Patrick) and his rookie partner (Michael Peña), O’Mara has free reign to break the law as he sees fit. In order to bring Cohen down, the Squad robs underground casinos, torches illegal sportsbooks, and install secret listening devices in the mob boss’ home. Due process, schmue process! The Gangster Squad will duly process your corpse once they’ve shot you to death.

That ‘Gangster Squad”s heroes are government-sanctioned vigilantes is not necessarily a problem; that ‘Gangster Squad’ accepts that premise so incuriously is. A handful of tossed-off lip service dialogue aside (interestingly, the one member of the team to voice serious reservations about their behavior is also the first to die), the film simply and unquestioningly revels in the Gangster Squad’s unchecked violence. It’s a glossy production with really impressive 1940s Los Angeles period details, but that’s it: gloss with nothing beneath the shiny surfaces.

Those surfaces were directed by Ruben Fleischer, whose ‘Zombieland’ showed a real flair for bending the rules of traditional genre moviemaking. With ‘Gangster Squad,’ whether it was his choice or the studio’s, Fleischer shows much less interest in experimentation — this is a straight-ahead, meat-and-potatoes, cops-and-robbers-and-none-of-that-thinking-stuff affair. It’s not totally devoid of pleasures, at least superficial ones. Everything and everyone looks great; the Gangster Squad patrolling the neon-lit L.A. night in their period suits, overcoats, and hats, shooting up glamorous hotels in ultra-slo-mo.

The lovely Emma Stone strikes quite a figure as Grace, a woman torn between Penn’s Cohen and Gosling’s Jerry Wooters. Stone and Gosling have worked together before, in 2011′s ‘Crazy, Stupid, Love,’ and that foundation of onscreen chemistry boosts their noir-style bar patter. As he did in 2011′s ‘Drive,’ Gosling brings iconoclastic choices to the role of a swaggering tough guy: oozing as much sensitivity and regret as machismo and bloodlust. Even in mediocre material, he’s a fun actor to watch.

Most of the rest of the cast keep their heads down and perform the roles ably but forgettably, each hitting the single note (or less) they’re given to play by Will Beall’s lackluster script. Brolin’s all square-jawed determination, Patrick’s the crafty old veteran, Ribisi the guy who sits around wearing headphones and occasionally shouting “Guys, guys! Shut up, I can’t hear!” As the blustery Cohen, Penn certain dials up the volume, but even in full angry, shouty mode, he seems weirdly dispirited, and with his big prosthetic nose and flashy period suits, he looks a little too cartoonish — like someone out of Warren Beatty’s ‘Dick Tracy’ — for a guy who literally tears apart his competition with chains and car bumpers.

‘Gangster Squad’ was delayed after the tragic shooting last July at a midnight screening of ‘The Dark Knight Rises,’ in part because it originally featured a showdown between the Gangster Squad and Cohen’s goons at Mann’s Chinese Theater. The scene was nixed and reshot in a new location, and the film’s release was pushed back several months — right into the aftermath of another horrible gun massacre. It will be interesting to see how the public responds to ‘Gangster Squad;’ its tale of a private militia with zero regard for the rule of law arming itself to root out corruption could play like an NRA recruitment video. At the very least, Dirty Harry would approve.‘Gangster Squad’ opens in theaters on January 11.

Matt Singer is a Webby award winning writer and podcaster. He currently runs the Criticwire blog on Indiewire and co-hosts the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast. His criticism has appeared in the pages of The Village Voice and Time Out New York and on ‘Ebert Presents at the Movies.’ He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, dog, and a prop sword from the movie ‘Gymkata.’

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