While director Ruben Fleischer’s Gangster Squad lets us know that it’s “inspired by a true story,” it becomes clear early on that it’s much more interested in the artifice of crime films rather than the hardboiled facts. To be sure, it’s a good-looking movie as the clothes, cars and locations all look of the post-WW II era. Problem is, all of it seems to have come straight off a movie lot. The whole affair lacks the sort of grit that made L. A. Confidential such a convincing look at the underbelly of crime. Squad looks and feels like a movie rather than a sordid look at the rough streets of Los Angeles, and as a result we can never become fully invested in or take it seriously.
Fresh from being mustered out of his unit after serving overseas during World War II, Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) is disgusted by the rampant corruption he has to contend with as he tries to uphold the law. While graft in the City of Angels has always been a problem, it’s even worse now that Eastern gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) has come to town. Intent on ruling the West Coast, the gangster has nearly all of the key politicians and public officials in his pocket. However, police chief Parker (Nick Nolte) isn’t one of them. Recognizing that O’Mara is a straight arrow, he directs him to take down Cohen by forming an outfit of like-minded cops, all willing to skirt the law and apprehend the mobster by any means necessary.
Fleischer should be given credit for keeping the film moving at a nice clip but then again, he knows you know where things are headed so he dispenses with character development which, as we all know, just slows things down. Soon, O’Mara has recruited the ever-vigilant Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie), western sharpshooter Max Kennard (Robert Patrick) and his partner Navidad Ramirez (Michael Pena) as well as techie Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi). Of course, the only way cynical holdout Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) is convinced to join up is after witnessing a tragedy that was a hoary conceit when it was used in the ’30s. Then again, Wooters is more concerned with bedding Cohen’s moll Grace Faraday (Emma Stone), so who can blame him for being distracted.
To be sure, the film is entertaining in its own way. There’s gunplay aplenty, and Penn is great fun, veering from a sincere approach to Cohen into the best sort of scene rending at the drop of a hat. It’s not a great performance but it is engaging, and the actor can’t be accused of not earning his pay this time out. However, the movie winds up being narratively flimsy, with the exception of O’Mara. We learn very little about what makes these cops tick. Sure, they want to do right and they each have a moral code to live up to but where does this behavior come from? Kennard is an interesting case and probably deserves a film of his own. He was obviously a leftover from the era of the Wild West, all of which is never touched upon. As it is here, he, like his vigilante partners, is just another colorful cop. It’s hard to care one way or another about their fate. That’s a deadly misstep for a film like this, replete with potentially moving moments what with all the dicey situations that develop.
The obvious model for the film is Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables. While that filmmaker is no stranger to artifice over fact, at the very least he took the time in that movie to allow us to see his cops commiserate, bond and weep over one another. Fleischer isn’t interested in that. He’d much rather deliver one needlessly bloody moment after another. He knows it’s far easier to create a flimsy sense of style than a film with any substance.
Contact Chuck Koplinski at firstname.lastname@example.org.