“Gangster Squad” is a beautiful yet ultimately frustrating film. The lush setting offers a vivid backdrop which quickly sucks in viewers. Unfortunately lackluster character development, unavoidable comparisons to other crime flicks, and a decidedly unnatural feel plague what should have been a classic movie.
Set in 1949 Los Angeles, “Gangster Squad” follows Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) in his quest to topple kingpin Mickey Cohen’s (Sean Penn) empire. The opening scene sets the mood as O’Mara rescues a young, naive girl from the clutches of Cohen’s henchmen. In the process he undoubtedly fractures a few law enforcement regulations. Upon discovering the blunder, Cohen gives his hollow forgiveness before torching the lot of thugs in an elevator shaft. These events serve to establish O’Mara as the hardened cop out to eradicate rampant crime, and Cohen as his ruthless foil.
Sadly, the film doesn’t delve much deeper. And considering the star-studded cast, it’s really a shame. Police Chief Bill Parker (a gruff-throated Nick Nolte) recruits O’Mara to head up an off-the-record crime fighting unit, dubbed the Gangster Squad. O’Mara, assisted by his pregnant wife Connie (Mireille Enos), puts together a ragtag team of cops. Each one seems more like a stereotype than an actual person, which is ironic considering the film purports itself to be “based on a true story.” Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie) joins with the hopes of combating drug problems. Nerdy Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi) is the resident tech-head and successfully pulls off a wire-tap on Cohen. There’s even a wisecracking gunslinger in the form of Max Kennard (Robert Patrick) and his partner “Christmas” Navidad Ramirez (Michael Pena). Lastly is Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) as the reluctant addition, dragged onto the team by a Billy Jack moment with the hopes of avenging the death of his shoeshine friend Pete (Austin Abrams).
Bringing Cohen down is no easy task, as the crew discover early on. Under O’Mara’s ready-fire-aim leadership, the group attempt to rob Cohen’s Burbank casino. Unfortunately a group of Burbank police officers in the venue thwart their effort, forcing an elaborate jail break. Their strikes culminate in burning down Slapsy Maxie’s, a nightclub which acts as a front for Cohen’s empire. However the squad make a fatal error, leading Cohen to the conclusion they are cops: they don’t take any money. Cohen sets up an attack on O’Mara and his men in Chinatown of all places. This is where the film really shoots itself in the foot. Any crime film should avoid a setting in L.A.’s Chinatown at all costs to shun any possible comparison to Roman Polanski’s classic neo-noir creation.
Predictably the Gangster Squad bring down Cohen, complete with a boxing match between O’Mara and Cohen. The journey is ridden with cliché dialogue, cookie-cutter characters, and a hodge-podge of bits from earlier crime films such as “Chinatown” and “L.A. Confidential.” The romance between Wooters and Cohen’s girlfriend/etiquette coach Grace Faraday (Emma Stone) seems borrowed from “L.A. Confidential.” Despite “Gangster Squad’s” unoriginality, it is beautifully shot and the setting captures the atmosphere of Post-WWII L.A. The film, though is like Diet Caffeine-free Coke: while it may appear like the real thing, it ultimately lacks substance.