By Niall McArdle
It’s perhaps fitting that the violent 1940s-set cops and robbers melodrama Gangster Squad is produced by Warner Brothers. The studio practically invented the gangster genre, beginning with Little Caesar and continuing with The Petrified Forest, Angels with Dirty Faces, and The Roaring Twenties. In doing so it made stars of the likes of Jimmy Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, George Raft, and Humphrey Bogart.
Warners was the cheapest of the major studios: most of the studio’s gangster pictures were filmed on the back-lot, and often the films were shrouded in darkness to disguise the cheapness of the sets. Gangster Squad, however, is a showoff production that wears its budget on its sleeve, with gorgeously detailed art direction and costume design. It is photographed by Dion Beebe in high gloss. The colours pop – Emma Stone’s red dress, the gold drapes behind the stage of a nightclub, neon signs in Chinatown, There is a lot of nostalgia for the look and feel of postwar Los Angeles in Gangster Squad – it’s a lot like L.A. Story in that respect (though nowhere near as good). The thrust of the story is that good men came back from the hell of war to make a better life only to see the city falling into the hands of the mob.
The film is besotted with the style and glamour of the city and of its anti-heroes, Josh Brolin and Ryan Gosling, who lead a squad of vigilante cops in an off-the-books guerilla war to reclaim the city from Mickey Cohen (a ridiculously over the top Sean Penn chewing the gorgeous scenery for all its worth). The film, directed by Ruben Fleischer with shallow bravura, wallows in the violence on both sides. You’ll marvel at the cut of the men’s suits even as they’re pummelling someone to a bloody mess, often in lurid slow motion with band music blaring on the soundtrack. Fleischer made the similarly gory (but hilarious) Zombieland
Nick Nolte makes a growling appearance as the police chief, and seeing him reminded me of the similar-themed Mulholland Falls, where he pretty much played the role that Brolin plays here. There’s a scene with the two of them, their jaws clenched, and I wondered if he was cast because he could pass as Brolin’s father.
More than Mulholland Falls, though, the film that Gangster Squad really owes a debt to is Brian di Palma’s The Untouchables, another violent based on truth story of lawmen using gangster methods to take down gangsters. It even has a parallel to The Untouchables’ bookkeeper Charles Martin Smith in Giovanni Ribisi as a nerdy wire-tap expert. Ribisi expresses discomfort at Brolin’s methods: “Can you remind me of the difference between us and them? Because at this point I can’t tell anymore.”
The screenplay is by Will Beall. It ticks off many of the cliches of the genre: corrupt cops, femme fatale, devoted wife, vicious hoods, noirish lingo, cynical newsmen. It even has a wiseass delinquent shoeshine boy that could have been played by one of the Dead End Kids. It’s a shame that a film with this story and this many good actors (the cast also includes Anthony Mackie, Michael Pena, Robert Patrick and Jon Polito) isn’t as good as it could have been.
Verdict: Three crooks torn apart by cars out of five.