Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in "Gangster Squad." (Warner Bros.)
Gangster Squad is a 1940s-style B-movie with modern A-list actors and a bad attitude.
Filmmaker Ruben Fleischer's ensemble includes Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn, Giovanni Ribisi, Nick Nolte, Robert Patrick, Michael Pena, Anthony Mackie and emerging star Emma Stone. All sexed up but slightly out of time and place in this period piece, Stone plays the mob moll who secretly loves a cop.
Gangster Squad is set in 1949-50, amid the turmoil of ruthless crime syndicates that operate in a wild west manner in the wake of World War II. But a crusading Los Angeles police chief skirts the law to set up a secret tactical unit that is "off-the-books" and therefore not expected to follow the rules. The goal is simple, deadly and messy: Stop Mafia scumbag Mickey Cohen as he tries to run the city by killing foes, bribing judges and putting crooked cops on his payroll. The squad is comprised of six men who cannot be bought. If necessary, they shoot to kill. Civilians may die in the crossfire.
This story is supposedly based on "a true story" but the movie Fleischer made from Paul Lieberman's book is mostly Hollywood fiction. Yes, a vice squad existed. Yes, both the police chief Bill Parker and mobster Cohen are real-life figures. Yes, they are both played with panache. Nolte may look old and fat but he still delivers the goods as Parker. Meanwhile, Penn chews up scenery like Al Pacino ("Say hello to my little friend") in Scarface. While Penn sometimes goes too far, he still stages several brilliant scenes that remind us of his subtle acting skills, even when playing a ruthless monster.
The "gangster squad" is more problematic. Brolin plays its bull-headed leader with enough lead-weight gravity to sink the character into oblivion. When the movie goes comic or crazy, as it does with regularity, Brolin is adrift. Gosling is smoother, of course, all cream-in-the-coffee charming. He is especially silky in his early lothario moments with Stone, who is Cohen's main squeeze and off limits. So he sails through the movie's rough waters.
The other members of the squad are predictable types: Ribisi as the tech expert; Patrick as the cowboy gunslinger; Pena as the young upstart; and Mackie as the ghetto man who wants to save his community from the ravages of Cohen's cocaine supply. Their "nobility" as warriors in the cause comes across as a little silly at times. And not that believable.
I am not saying there is nothing to enjoy here. The '40s settings impress; at least one sequence (the pool murder) has a cinematic flourish; the human element is invoked for an undertone of drama (or melodrama); and Gosling is fun to follow with his minimalism and sly smirk. You can even get off on that balls-out performance by Penn.
But the movie also has glaring weaknesses. Several big shoot-outs and fist fights -- especially the BIG finale with the Christmas ornaments -- are pure B-movie hokum. Treated more seriously, Gangster Squad might have been a great movie. But that has been done already: It is called L.A. Confidential.
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