Los Angeles has always had an appealing fantasy image. It has long been the home of the film industry, as well as a large chunk of the rest of showbiz. The carefree image of its sun, sea and surf were promulgated in pop music by the Beach Boys, Jan & Dean, the Mamas & Papas and many others.
Of course no place is Nirvana and LA’s seamy underside that came along with its post-World War II growth spurt has been detailed in Raymond Chandler’s detective novels and in films such as “Chinatown,” “Mulholland Drive,” “Bugsy” and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” The latest entrant in the modern-day film noir look at the City of Angels is “Gangster Squad.”
If we are to believe the filmmakers, Los Angeles in 1949 is owned lock, stock and barrel by gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), who is able to engage in profitable but illicit ventures including prostitution, drugs and gambling because he has countless police, judges, and politicians on his payroll.
But not every officer of the law is on the take from Cohen. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) is a World War II vet who returned home to join the LAPD and now feels that he has to fight in a new war to save his city. The opening scene, in which O’Mara beats a bunch of Mickey’s goons to a pulp — because they’re trying to forcibly take advantage of an ingenue who moved to Tinsel Town to try to make it in the movies — is gruesome and yet displays some humor among the violence. That’s indicative of the mood of this film.
Police Chief William Parker (Nick Nolte) is so repulsed by Cohen’s unchecked power that he allows O’Mara to form his own vigilante militia composed of LA cops. Among them is Sgt. Jerry Wooten (Ryan Gosling), a guy who previously hadn’t minded getting along with the mob because he had friends on the wrong side of the law. Jerry has a drastic change of heart when a shoeshine boy who works outside of his favorite Hollywood nightclub, Slapsie Maxie’s, is inadvertently killed when Mickey’s men start a gang war on a crowded street without the slightest concern about civilian casualties.
As can only happen in a movie script, Wooten falls for Mickey’s moll, Grace (Emma Stone), and she in turn is attracted to his boyish charms and sense of right and wrong. Gosling and Stone appeared together in the 2011 Steve Carell comedy “Crazy, Stupid Love,” and, as was the case in that intermittently funny film, there is a palpable onscreen chemistry between them.
“Gangster Squad” is a mixed bag. If you like testosterone-charged flicks that are loaded with bullets and fistfights and can easily suspend disbelief when it comes to plot plausibility, then 2013 is cinematically off to a good start for you.
To be fair, there are things to like here. Director Ruben Fleischer and screenwriter Will Beall (a retired LAPD officer himself) do a terrific job in recreating 1949 Los Angeles. All the actors clearly buy into Beall’s script, in which the good and bad guys are clearly delineated.
It’s been awhile since Sean Penn has played a villain, and his Mickey Cohen is a charmless brute who sounds like the late Leo Gorcey of those old “Dead End Kids/Bowery Boys” shorts.
You have to tip your hat to both Penn and Brolin for their willingness to literally get down and dirty. According to the reliable entertainment website Hollyscoop.com, the actors eschewed stuntmen for their climactic mano-a-mano brawl. They apparently trained with boxers and martial arts experts.
On the down side, the dialog is frequently choppy and often sounds like a parody of 1940s films. Credibility is also strained when two of the good guys on the squad are played by Anthony Mackie and Michael Pena. I am a big fan of both actors, but the Los Angeles police force of 1949 was not known for its acceptance of minorities. Clearly the casting was done for current box office marketing purposes as opposed to maintaining the historical accuracy of the period.
There are plenty of worse films than this one, but “Gangster Squad” is certainly no “Chinatown.”