With Josh Brolin, Sean Penn, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Nick Nolte. Written by Will Beall. Directed by Ruben Fleischer. Rated R for strong violence and language. 113 minutes.
Please don’t confuse anything you see in GANGSTER SQUAD with reality. Yes there was a gangster named Mickey Cohen who, for a time, was a big deal in Los Angeles, but where the film tells us he gets his just desserts in prison in the late 1940s, he actually died peacefully in his sleep in 1976.
Instead, treat this as a cartoonish action film that owes as much to the western as to the gangster movie, and just go along for the ride. Its place in film history is likely to be a grim footnote. It was originally supposed to open last fall but a scene of a machine gun battle in a movie theater was deemed too similar to the tragic murders in Aurora, Colorado last summer. The film was pulled from the August schedule, and the scene in question was reshot, instead setting it in Chinatown. It’s still violent, but now it doesn’t echo the headlines.
The storyline involves Cohen (Sean Penn) who plans to be the mob kingpin of Los Angeles. The Chief of Police (Nick Nolte) doesn’t like this and asks Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) to put together a group that will destroy Cohen’s operations while acting outside of the law. Chief among them is Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) who, conveniently, is having an affair with the luscious (and fictional) Grace Faraday (Emma Stone). Also on board are expert gunman Max Kennard (Robert Patrick), surveillance whiz Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi), and streetwise Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie). To ensure the Latino demographic is not overlooked, young Navidad Ramirez (Michael Peña) talks his way on to the squad. The lack of an Asian-American can only be considered an oversight by the marketing department.
As O’Mara and his team start doing serious damage to Cohen’s operations, even they see that they are acting entirely outside the law. In that sense this is less a gangster movie than a variation on the classic western “Shane.” The only way to take out the “bad” gunmen is to bring in the “good” gunmen, a storyline of which the NRA would undoubtedly approve. The only problem is that many good people – cops and innocent by-standers – are harmed in the carnage.
However, to notice this is to require thinking, something that the makers of “Gangster Squad” did not engage in and certainly don’t want members of the audiences to attempt either. Instead, having made it clear which side we’re to be rooting for, our job is to go along for the ride. When bad guys get shot or their cars blow up or their operations are set on fire, we’re to cheer. When good guys get hurt or killed we’re to feel bad, although if they can get off one good shot before they die, we’ll be happy.
From the above description you already know whether you want to see “Gangster Squad.” If a violent action film that requires you to check your brain at the door is your idea of a good time – and there are many peaceful people of above-average intelligence for whom it is – then you will have a blast. If you want logic, originality, and historical accuracy, you’re in the wrong place.***
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide will be released this month. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.