Gangster Squad



If you’ve seen the trailers for Gangster Squad, then you pretty much know what to expect. Mickey Cohen (played by Sean Penn) is a mob king pin in 1940’s Los Angeles. He has a monopoly on the drug, guns, and prostitute supply out there, and now he’s trying to take over the wire betting industry. He has most of the city’s cops and politicians on the take, and those who aren’t are afraid of him, just like everyone else in Los Angeles.

Except for Sergeant John O’Mara (played by Josh Brolin). He’s just come back from fighting in World War II, and as he tells us in the opening voiceover, the one thing his service has taught him is that all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. So when the Police Chief Parker (played by Nick Nolte) assigns him the task of bringing down Mickey Cohen, O’Mara jumps headfirst into it.  But first thing’s first: he needs a team.

He finds five men, seemingly the only other cops who aren’t corrupt. They are Sgt. Jerry Wooters (played by Ryan Gosling), Officer Coleman Harris (played by Anthony Mackie), Officer Max Kennard (played by Robert Patrick) Officer Navidad Ramirez (played by Michael Peña), and Officer Conway Keeler (played by Giovanni Ribisi, who I was pleasantly surprised to see in this movie, as I hadn’t recognized him in any of the trailers). And if you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire—wait, I’m thinking about the A-Team. Moving on.

I like the casting. Brolin already has a rugged look that makes him seem at home in the 40’s. He looks like what I imagine a man would look like in those days. And he fits the Sgt O’Mara character perfectly. O’Mara is honor and duty all the way to his core. He’s passionate about his values, and will risk his life to protect them, which at times means he uses brawn over brains. Brolin just knows how to play this role.

Gosling’s character, Jerry, is more charm than honor. He dresses the nicest out of all of team, he hangs out at the coolest clubs, he smokes like a chimney, and he looks cool doing it all. Piece of cake for Gosling. It’s almost his character from Crazy Stupid Love transplanted into the 1940’s. It’s hard not to make that comparison, especially when he falls for Emma Stone’s character all over again. Here she plays Grace Faraday. She’s “dating” Mickey. I put dating in quotes because it’s clear that she doesn’t really have the option to leave. Of course she came to L.A. to be a star, but she has a quiet acceptance about the situation she finds herself in now. Jerry too has accepted things the way they are around, i.e., the city’s rampant corruption. Initially he just wants to enjoy the carnival ride that is Los Angeles, but circumstances arise that force him to reassess his values.

The rest of the guys are (and I won’t say “conveniently”) more than happy to join the squad. Ribisi is the brains. Mackie has the street smarts. Robert Patrick is the old hand and the best with a pistol, like something out of a cowboy movie. Peña’s is the rookie. They’re all good in their roles and enjoyable to watch, even if they aren’t so well-developed. But with six members on the team, it’s hard to give them all the screen time needed to make them real people (hence my feeling fine using the actors’ names here instead of their characters’ names).

Which brings me to my main issue with this movie: its depth. There’s not a lot of it. It’s good guys vs. bad guys, plain and simple. It doesn’t explore topics or ideas. It doesn’t ask of the audience any questions. The story is fairly predictable. And none of that means it isn’t enjoyable because it is. Yet I left the theater thinking about all the avenues they could have explored to make the film more meaningful. For instance they could have had less members in the squad and spent more time developing those characters. I like Robert Patrick and Michael Peña, but you don’t need their characters. They’re hardly real people with real desires and add little to the movie other than humor.

I think the movie also had ample opportunity to explore the idea of police corruption. I certainly was curious what it must have been like for such good-hearted cops to be surrounded by bought-off cops all day long. There’s so much room for conflict there. In fact I think there absolutely has to be some conflict there, but it’s not explored. Also, I was curious how the squad members balanced this mission with their other police work. It’s not a big deal, but this a secret mission, so how exactly do they keep it a secret, especially when they make no qualms about being seen together in public?

They set Jerry up as the guy most hesitant to join the squad, torn between his morals and his desire for easy pleasures and self-preservation. But once he does join, there’s no more doubt. That’s possible, especially given the reason he joins, but i think it would have been more interesting to see him continuing to experience doubt.

As for Grace, I would have liked to see more of her, specifically how she deals with the fact that she’s practically trapped with Mickey and in love with Jerry. How does she sleep at night? That’s not a judgment question. I want to know how she literally sleeps at night. Does she lie awake in fear, wondering when Mickey will finally realize her betrayal and kill her? Or does she just go to sleep and worry about tomorrow tomorrow.

I wish we would have spent more time with Mickey too. Instead of getting his backstory through voiceover at the start of the movie, let’s learn it in the present through context. I mean I could keep going here. And in fact I will, just a little.

I would have liked to see the squad members talking to each other more, just learning about one another, forming a real bond that goes beyond wanting to bust Mickey. I would have liked to see O’Mara and his wife, Connie (played by Mireille Enos), talk to each other a little more. From the beginning of the film she’s tired of him putting himself in danger every night, and then later something major happens involving her, and they don’t talk about it. It’s assumed they do, sure, but we never see it. Why not? There’s a ton of skin in this movie, but no meat. It looks good and it’s pleasant, but it’s not very satisfying, and I think you’ll forget about it fairly quickly. I can’t see me thinking about it after I post this.

My Rating

Gangster Squad
Director: Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland, 30 Minutes or Less)
Writer: Will Beall (Castle [TV series]), Paul Lieberman (Gangster Squad [book])

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