Ruben Fleischer’s Gangster Squad is an action thriller set in late-1940s Los Angeles, a time when the city was under the tightening grip of mafia dons like Mickey Cohen. It has a great cast, but it is not a great film.
Josh Brolin plays Sergeant John O’Mara, a war veteran – and now police officer – whose run-ins with Cohen’s rackets have lead him to believe that the city is in real danger of becoming a lawless area, governed by a seemingly impenetrable web of corruption. He finds a kindred spirit in Police Chief Bill Parker (Nick Nolte) who invites him to put together a band of police to work ‘off the books’ and take on Cohen at his own game. And that means violence.
O’Mara’s squad eventually features, amongst others, Robert Patrick as an ageing gunslinger, Giovanni Ribisi as a specialist in communications and Anthony Mackie as a hardened beat cop. Sergeant Jerry Wooters, played with smooth charisma by the ever-likable Ryan Gosling, is the wild card in the pack. Initially apathetic to the struggles of the city, he soon finds a reason (albeit a rather contrived one) to join O’Mara’s outlaws. From there, they set out to pistol whip as many bad guys as possible.
On the other side we have Cohen himself, played by an emaciated Sean Penn in full snarling psychopath mode, and his much younger girlfriend Grace, played with sass by Emma Stone. Grace becomes involved romantically with the apparently irresistible Wooters, creating a mildly tense – but ultimately incidental – subplot.
You’d think the casting of Sean Penn would be a stroke of genius in a role like this, but in actual fact his performance, while you couldn’t call it bad, is pitched all wrong. His deliriously evil villain is so one-dimensional he fails to make much of an impact, despite how much gusto Penn is giving it. The performance has one register – snarling insanity – and it never changes, which to some extent is a criticism one could level at the film.
Will Beall’s screenplay has plenty of spark, and there are some intelligent, witty moments, but the narrative boils down to a series of action scenes featuring mostly one-dimensional characters. There are good actors giving good performances here, but the script just doesn’t given them much else to do beyond hitting people in the face. There are occasional nods to a subtext concerning what happens to war veterans in the aftermath of their military careers, but given the film takes such obvious pleasure in letting them romp around shooting gangsters, it hardly holds water. The romance subplot is similarly light on its feet, although credit should be given to Gosling and Stone for conjuring up real chemistry in such a short space of time.
Despite the stylishness of the production design, the film struggles to carve out an identity for itself. It’s saved from mediocrity by its cast, and there are certainly things to like in there, but its misjudged villain and generic action film structure put it some way below the staples of the LA thriller sub-genre.