Gangster Squad ✮✮1/2
by Glenn Lovell
“Gangster Squad” has all the accoutrements of a rat-a-tat-tat gangland saga: Tommy guns, turf wars, two-timin’ molls … a real-life crime czar in Mickey Cohen (played with mad-dog ferocity by a slumming Sean Penn). But don’t go expecting another “Untouchables” or “L.A. Confidential.” Director Reuben Fleischer (“Zombieland”) and his coterie of costumers and production designers had something else in mind — a maniacally arch fusion of “Dick Tracy” and, yes, the classic western “The Magnificent Seven.”
As unlikely as this sounds, it works. I had a fun time, even as the film spun vertiginously from outrageously violent ‒ we open with a Chicago thug being drawn and quartered under the Hollywoodland sign — to hilariously cartoonish.
The setting is Los Angeles, 1949. It’s all klieg-light glitz, home to the Slapsy Maxie Club and Carmen Miranda. John Brolin plays Sgt. John O’Mara, a square-jawed war hero who has been charged by his equally chiseled chief (Nick Nolte) with ending Cohen’s bloody reign. “This isn’t a crime wave,” the chief tells him, “it’s an enemy occupation.” And their mopping-up campaign will be “off the books,” an extra-legal guerrilla battle. Completing O’Mara’s Magnificent Six: a smart-mouth ladies’ man (Ryan Gosling doing a mumbling Steve McQueen), a cop who’s handy with a knife (Anthony Mackie subbing for James Coburn’s Britt), a legendary vet who sports holster and Stetson (Robert Patrick), an intelligence “brain” (Giovanni Ribisi), and a tag-along Hispanic (Michael Peña filling in for Horst Buchholz).
Mireille Enos and Emma Stone play O’Mara’s bull-dog protective wife and Cohen’s favorite tomato who takes up with Gosling. Given the mucho macho material, they acquit themselves well enough. As for the gangster squad, they’re given little to do other than dodge lead in a series of car chases and ambushes (excluding a theater fusillade, axed after the Aurora massacre). This they do with jocular authority, which, especially in Gosling’s case, says, “Hey, gimme a break ‒ it’s all for laughs.” Two-time Oscar winner Penn goes further: his certifiable crime boss makes De Niro’s Capone seem serene. He froths at the mouth so much he disappears behind a mask of spittle.
For the record, the intermittently clever script is by TV writer Will Beall. Grumbles Cohen, “Cops come out of nowhere, like an early frost.” Gosling’s cynical pretty boy to his Boy Scout boss: “The whole town’s underwater, and you’re grabbing a bucket when you should be grabbing a bathing suit.” Cohen on the masked vigilantes: “A cop who’s not for sale is like a dog with rabies. There’s no serum for it; you got to put him down.”
GANGSTER SQUAD ✮✮1/2 With Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn, Emma Stone. Directed by Reuben Fleischer; scripted by Will Beall. 113 min. Rated R (for nonstop violence, gruesome makeup effects, profanity)