Don’t be duped by the generic title, because on the heels of his sophomore-slump comedy 30 Minutes or Less, Zombieland director Ruben Fleischer is back in top form with Gangster Squad, a pulpy action throwback that effortlessly achieves its goal to entertain thanks to a top-shelf cast, dazzling direction, and a fast-paced screenplay chock-full of snappy 1940s-style patter. Although it arguably lacks the prestige and dramatic impact of its most obvious predecessor, Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables, Fleischer’s third feature rarely stops to reload while bending every crime-flick cliche imaginable into a relentlessly thrilling tale of cops versus gangsters.
Inspired by actual events, Gangster Squad opens by introducing us to Jewish gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), a Brooklyn-born boxer-turned-L.A. kingpin whose brutal ambition earned him the respect of the Italian mob. He’s the kind of gangster who dines with judges and police chiefs, but still isn’t quite sure which fork to use when it comes time for the main course. Just when it begins to look like Cohen owns every cop in the city, however, LAPD Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) enlists honest cop Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) to assemble a top-secret task force that will burn the vicious gangster’s thriving criminal empire to the ground. With the help of his pregnant wife Connie (Mireille Enos), Sgt. O’Mara handpicks smooth-talking Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), heroin-hating Officer Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie), deadeye Officer Max Kennard (Robert Patrick), and brilliant wireman Officer Conwell Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi) for the task at hand. Joined by Officer Kennard’s tough sidekick Officer Navidad Ramirez (Michael Pena) as they set out for their first job, the squad strike fast and hard at the core of Cohen’s operation. Meanwhile, the charming Sgt. Wooters flirts with danger by starting an affair with Cohen’s smoldering paramour Grace Faraday (Emma Stone). Shortly after learning that Cohen is plotting a power play that will cement his stronghold on the city, however, the squad are unexpectedly compromised, putting the lives of all of their families in danger and leaving them with little choice but to step up their efforts and target the ruthless gangster directly. Should they live to accomplish their mission, Sgt. O’Mara and his men will prevent L.A. from becoming a hive of criminal activity like Chicago or New York. But Cohen isn’t going down without a fight, and if he falls, the entire city will feel the aftershock.
Originally slated to hit screens in September of 2012 but pushed back for reshoots in the wake of the Colorado theater massacre (the original trailer prominently featured a scene in which Tommy-gun-toting gangsters shot their way through a movie screen as a terrified audience scrambled for cover), Fleischer’s take on the true story of Mickey Cohen merges vivid period details with hyper-modern filmmaking techniques to striking effect. Visually arresting from the opening shot of a sinewy Cohen taking his aggression out on a punching bag, it may not be the ideal film to release amidst swelling passions on both sides of the U.S. gun debate, but for better or worse it’s precisely the kind of lurid, bullet-laden crime drama that’s been Hollywood’s bread and butter since the days of James Cagney -- so much so that it’s almost shocking you never hear Cohen shout “You’ll never take me alive, coppers!” while spitting lead at Sgt. O’Mara and company. As Cohen, screen veteran Penn exudes droopy-eyed menace while casually tearing his enemies in half and delivering thinly veiled threats to inquisitive reporters, and woe unto the henchman who bears bad news, because chances are they’ll end up burned alive or on the wrong end of a power drill. Because of this, Penn often comes close to turning this real-life character into a sadistic cartoon villain, but even when he’s threatening to fly over the top, his screen-chewing antics certainly succeed in earning our ire. On the right side of the law, Brolin is appropriately hard-boiled as an honest cop barely keeping his head above water in a sea of corruption, and Gosling provides much welcomed comic relief while Nolte croaks out his lines with the harsh rasp of a grizzled vet who’s been chain-smoking tailpipes. At the same time, Patrick brings some likeability to the proceedings as the cop who favors a six-shooter over a shotgun, and who would have been comfortable taming the West alongside Wyatt Earp.
On the visual front, Zombieland fans taken by the arresting style of Fleischer’s eye-popping feature debut will certainly find plenty to please their pupils this time as well. In a number of scenes it seems readily apparent that the director is striving for iconic imagery, and with the help of cinematographer Dion Beebe he occasionally achieves it. Fleischer’s flashy flourishes may cheapen the film in the eyes of traditionalists, but they ultimately serve well to distinguish Gangster Squad and prove the perfect complement to freshman screenwriter Will Beall’s punchy, vivacious script, which features a surprising amount of humor as the squad establish their rapport and refine their techniques. As with most films, it’s difficult to tell exactly how Gangster Squad will age and whether or not it will achieve classic status, but with all of the various elements coalescing as well as they do, it’s a pretty good sign that we never have time to stop and think about it until the last shot has been fired and the final blow has been dealt. leave a comment --Jason Buchanan