Movie Review: Gangster Squad

Movie Review: Gangster Squad

The premise for Gangster Squad makes for an interesting read but that interest hasn’t translated to attention-grabbing cinema.

By Mark HadleyWednesday 9 Jan 2013MoviesReading Time: 3 minutes

Rating: M
Distributor: Roadshow
Release Date: January 10

There are so many L.A./gangster films this movie does not resemble that it’s hard to see what its producers hoped it would be. But Gangster Squad makes one thing crystal clear: our actions identify us as obviously as any uniform we might choose to wear.

Gangster Squad is set in Los Angeles in 1949, a city caught up the boom years that enveloped America in the wake of World War Two. Along with the increased prosperity come gangsters like Sean Penn’s Mickey Cohen, a criminal determined to carve out an empire by the most violent means possible. The establishing scenes include a man being torn apart by two cars, savage beatings and the liberal use of machine guns. Nick Nolte plays the Los Angeles Police Commissioner who decides to assemble an ‘off the books’ squad of detectives to break up Cohen’s crime ring. Sergeant John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) is a former Special Forces soldier who isn’t afraid of blood on his knuckles; Sergeant Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) is a street-savvy policeman who understands the mob’s weaknesses. With their team Wooters and O’Mara begin demolishing Cohen’s operation, causing widespread havoc until it’s no longer clear who is on the side of law and order.

The premise for Gangster Squad makes for an interesting read but that interest hasn’t translated to attention-grabbing cinema. There are action scenes that mimic Scorcese’s Goodfellas but the violence is often pointless and over the top. It has excellent art direction but lacks the film noir feel of L.A. Confidential. It strives for an emotionally moving storyline about the price of justice, but fails to engage the audience in a way that films like The Untouchables did. In short, Gangster Squad is an ‘almost’ film – almost thrilling, almost attractive, almost insightful.

It’s a pity because there were clearly some serious ideas that were worth bringing home in a way that didn’t sound like a spoof of the gangster genre. Sergeant O’Mara opens the story with a description of Mickey Cohen that reflects the intrinsic link between our inner and outer lives:

“Every man carries a badge, a symbol of his allegiance. Cohen’s are his scars and his commitment to violence.”

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It’s true that one of the best ways to understand who we really are is to watch what we do because, as Jesus puts it, “Out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly.” But the hammy way Brolin delivers that line as a 1960’s style narration undercuts its essential truth. Likewise, O’Mara’s wife makes the link between ideas and actions when she describes her husband,

“For him honour and duty are not abstract concepts. They’re as real as I am.”

But O’Mara is a two dimensional character that doesn’t have much substance in our real world, and it doesn’t help that Gangster Squad is only very loosely based on the truth (the real Mickey Cohen was nowhere near the monster Penn portrays). So, sadly, even the truths this movie tells take on an air of fiction. With nothing else to offer but excessive violence and clichéd lines, Gangster Squad is a film best read about than watched.