REVIEW: Rat-A-Tat-What? Over-The-Top 'Gangster Squad' Makes 'Dick Tracy' Look Like A Documentary
The cops play things as dirty as the crooks in Gangster Squad, an impressively pulpy underworld-plunger that embellishes on a 1949 showdown between a dedicated team of LAPD officers and Mob-connected Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) for control of the city. Set squarely in classic-noir territory, the bombastic crimer applies a pre-Production Code amorality to this world of vice, though its gleeful depiction of violence backfired once already, forcing the removal of a scene featuring Tommy guns blazing in a crowded movie theater due to the shootings in Aurora, Colo. A six-month delay should heal all wounds for this Warners release.
Recent headlines land farther from home for this solid, retro-toned ensembler from director Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland), which admittedly seems a little too keen to put its 21st-century stylistic stamp on the ruthlessness of the era. Opening with a scene in which Cohen chains a rival between two cars as a message to his Chicago bosses, this macho genre homage plays closer to The Untouchables than to L.A. Confidential as a self-aware gloss on old gangster pics.
Loosely derived from true events, as chronicled in Paul Lieberman's book, Will Beall's screenplay concerns the moment when, shortly after Bugsy Siegel left for Vegas, Cohen made his play for Los Angeles. An ex-boxer whose belt-winning brutality forms the backstory of Penn's portrayal, Cohen evidently had most of the city's peace officers in his pocket, which posed a challenge for police chief William Parker (Nick Nolte, sounding gruff as ever). The way Parker sees it, the only way to keep L.A. from going the way of Gotham, Chi-Town and Sin City is to wage guerilla war on Cohen's operations.
His ideal general is a WWII vet named John O'Mara (Josh Brolin), a gung-ho sergeant so intent on playing the hero, he singlehandedly brings down one of Cohen's prostitution rings in the first reel. With Parker's blessing, O'Mara assembles the pic's eponymous team of enforcers, whose job it is to upset Cohen's gambling, sex and drug rings around town -- an assignment complicated by the fact that dirty cops are often participating in these activities, and are all too eager to defend their patron.
It's here that a fascinating true-crime foundation gives way to fantasy; there are moments in Gangster Squad where Fleischer is so far out on a limb, it makes Dick Tracy look like a documentary. But it's all in the spirit of classic B-movie fun, and however over-the-top the action gets (a shootout in the lobby of the Park Plaza Hotel is a veritable orgy of bullet casings, blazing muzzles and flying shrapnel), every creative decision seems to be in service of telling the most entertaining possible story, backed by first-rate wardrobe and art contributions, and underscored by Steve Jablonsky's might-makes-right music.
Besides, you can't beat this cast. In the good guys' corner, there's Ryan Gosling, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, Robert Patrick and Michael Pena (a refreshingly mixed-race bunch, despite the period). Opposite, there's Penn's larger-than-life performance as Cohen, a feat of unbridled entitlement. He fumes and storms like some kind of Cro-Magnon monster who just stumbled from the cave to claim what is rightfully his, feral intensity amplified to a pitch not to be dwarfed by Al Pacino's Tony Montana, Robert De Niro's Al Capone or Harvey Keitel's own spin on Cohen in Bugsy.