What kind of a name is Gangster Squad? It sounds like something a child might come up while playing cops and robbers. But Gangster Squad is the perfect name for this movie. Perfect.
The eponymous squad are essentially a group of superheroes with badges, assembled to defeat an evil psychopathic crimelord, Mickey Cohen, played by a hilariously nefarious Sean Penn. If you’re expecting LA Confidential, look away now: Gangster Squad may ostensibly be based the true events of 1949, but don’t let that fool you – it’s about as realistic as a war reenactment performed by woodland animals.
Army vet John O’Mara — played by Josh Brolin — is the all-American hero, tasked with assembling a crack team of under-the-radar officers to break Cohen’s stranglehold of Los Angeles. He’s basically Captain America with a shotgun instead of a bouncing shield.
He selects a bunch of misfit cops who are so unpredictable or pigheaded that even the mafia can’t buy them off. There is the “gun guy”, who never misses a shot: a wise choice in a fight against an enemy with a surfeit of firearms. There is the “techy guy” who helps the team stay one step ahead of the mob: another good pick. Then things start to go downhill. There is the “knife guy”. Yup, the knife guy. A cop who uses a literally brings a knife to a gunfight. I’d have left knife guy at home, personally, and brought another gun guy – but then I’m not Sergeant John O’Mara, so what the hell do I know?
There is Jerry Wooters — Ryan Gosling — whose superpower is just being so damn dreamy that nobody can take their eyes off him. He mostly swaggers around the place like a lascivious puppy, all eyes and… and… blond. Finally there is a guy who isn’t very good at anything and can’t shoot a tin can from 10 yards, but they let him come along for the ride anyway. It’s only a life or death mission for the “soul of LA”, why not cut the kid a break?
Completing the list of noir cliches is Emma Stone’s Gracey, the red-head femme fatale who you just know ain’t gonna bring anything but trouble, with her come-to-bed eyes and lips so red you could paint the town with them. She’s the kinda broad who only exists in pulp novels and behind the perfume counters of high-end department stores.
Despite the all-star cast, there is almost no attempt at character development — everyone has their pre-assigned role and sticks to it. There is the odd attempt at reflection on the wider repercussions of the scenario: when cops abandon their badges and start shooting people, what makes them different from the gangsters? But the answer is blindingly obvious: they are the good guys and Cohen is the pantomime bad guy; a grotesque, a caricature. This is a film painted entirely in black, white and blood red.
From the opening scene, featuring a gangster being yanked — “sploshed” might be a better word — in half by two cars driving in opposite directions, it gets progressively more gruesome. It builds up like a video-game, crashing from one set piece to the next, until it reaches the final, inevitable, ridiculous — but riveting — boss fight.
It’s crude, blunt and meat-headed — but it’s great fun. It’s like the final scene of Scarface, stretched out over an entire movie.
Gangster Squad’s biggest battle is with the level of expectation set by its decidedly A-list cast. But before you go, remind yourself this is a movie called Gangster Squad. Roll the name around your mind for a minute. It’s ridiculous. Enjoy it for what it is.
First published in City A.M.