Movie Review: “Gangster Squad”

Something called “Gangster Squad” requires realistic expectations, to say the least.

This film is all pulp and glossy style, offering almost nothing in the way of substance, but I believe it is also precisely the movie Ruben Fleischer intended to make. Those expecting the seedy, complex noir of “L.A. Confidential” won’t find it here. But if you are seeking a stylized take on classic gangsters and cops, duking it out with tommy guns, you could do far worse.

“Gangster Squad” opens with one of those cockamamie “inspired by true events” title cards. Sure, Los Angeles was a real place in 1949, and Mickey Cohen was a real gangster, but that is the extent of any truth. The screenplay by Will Beall mostly tosses aside actual history in favor of a narrative that seems to exist in an alternate reality. In this reality, Mickey Cohen is a ferocious hothead, waiting to explode at the slightest agitation. Sean Penn plays him as an egotistical maniac, but his scene chewing is spot-on for the tone Fleischer seeks.

Nick Nolte plays Police Chief Parker, infamous for his strong-armed approach to cleaning up corruption in the city. Here he enlists Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) to recruit a rogue unit of off-the-books police officers to start hitting Cohen’s rackets in an effort to drive him out of town.

The cast is a serviceable bunch of recognizable stars, but uniformly underdeveloped. That’s OK in a picture like this because it is gleefully about style over substance and it requires good-looking men. Replace any of these talented actors, and you’re left with a made-for-TV snoozer.

Ryan Gosling plays a dedicated sergeant named Jerry Wooters. He initially resists the offer to go after Cohen, but once he snags Cohen’s leading lady, Grace Faraday (Emma Stone), he has good reason to get invested. The team is rounded out by Michael Pena, Robert Patrick, Anthony Mackie and Giovanni Ribisi — each one with a specific generic trait to lend to the team. One nice touch is Sgt. O’Mara’s wife, played by Mireille Enos, in a role that at first seems like the clichéd stay-at-home concerned wife. Sure, she’s pregnant, but she can hold her own and after she puts in her two cents. She insists on helping her husband select his team so that she knows he has good men to back him up.

The action is generally well-staged and while the film underwent some re-shoots for widely publiscized reasons, nothing about them feels jarring or disjointed. The cinematography by Dion Beebe is warm and glamorous, easily providing a visual style to match the film’s vibrant mood. In fact, the most enjoyable aspect of “Gangster Squad” is that it doesn’t pretend to be a more substantial film, but embraces its look and simple narrative enough to live up to its title. Not every gangster-era movie needs to aspire to greatness.

I can see why “Gangster Squad” would underwhelm critics and audiences, but it provides an even better experience than the trailers would suggest. This is a solid entertainment that requires purposefully lowered expectations.

After all, you can’t go see something called “Gangster Squad” and expect an Oscar contender.

Written by Will Beall; directed by Ruben Fleischer; starring Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Robert Patrick and Sean Penn. Rated R; 113 minutes; Three stars out of four.