Underneath the authentic ’40s milieu of Reuben (Zombieland) Fleischer’s tale of white knights and anthracite villains is a far better movie straining to break free.
For Gangster Squad (“inspired by true events”) is hobbled by its closeness to the mood, atmosphere and cacophonous gunplay of Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables.
Set in Los Angeles in 1949, Gangster Squad tells of a tight-knit band of diehard cops – including a playboy, doting dad, knife-wielding crusader and crackshot cowboy – who are enlisted by dogged war hero Josh Brolin to wage war on murderous Mafia kingpin Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn).
Cohen is determined to rid himself of his ties to his Mob bosses in Chicago and thus become king of the City of Angels. The film begins with the foul killing of an Illinois associate – Cohen’s unequivocal message of defiance to his controllers.
At the same time reckless Sergeant John O’Mara (Brolin) is scything his way through the LA underworld. He saves an innocent girl from a despicable fate at the hands of Cohen’s thugs, going in hard with his fists. He’s a one-man army: violence incorporated. Think Russell Crowe in LA Confidential.
Nick Nolte is the incorruptible police chief who gives Brolin vigilante powers to shoot to kill. And as history collides with film fantasy the picture begins to unravel. As a stand-off between good and evil, Gangster Squad is a solid drama. Packed with action, car chases, fist fights and even an unsuccessful attempt at some sizzling romance between Ryan Gosling and Cohen’s moll Emma Stone, it almost begs to be taken seriously. The film’s biggest ace card is also its booby prize. Sean Penn is superb as a reptilian monster with a creepy line in death – everything from using cars to pull people in half to electric drills to open their heads. But he goes beyond Shakespearian and slips into quasi pantomime.
The history books tell us that the final confrontation between white hat and black hat never happened. It’s effective in a bone-crunchingly awesome way that it’s hard not to be impressed. It’s hard to shake the feeling that this has been done before – a Scotsman playing an Irishman and Kevin Costner eager to do good.