January 18, 2013 by Josh Weiss
When making a good mob movie, it is imperative that you have a murderous gangster, someone trying to stop him, and plenty of gunfire thrown in for flavor. “Gangster Squad,” released Jan. 11, has enough of these three elements to keep you entertained for its 113-minute running time. Known for his first two comedic films, director Ruben Fleischer (“Zombieland,” “30 Minutes or Less”) makes his first foray into dramatic filmmaking to tell the true story of Jewish mobster Mickey Cohen and the group of Los Angeles Police Department officers who went up against him in the late 1940s and early ’50s. While the film is filled with great performances, emotion and violence, I found myself more mesmerized by its cinematography, production design and timeless themes.
It is 1949, four years after the end of World War II. Mickey Cohen, a New York transplant, has become the most prominent criminal figure in the California underworld. He fancies himself a god and feels that he is the symbol of the future because Los Angeles is his destiny. Cohen is portrayed by Sean Penn, who plays the role with an underlying sense of danger, speaking in low growls like a rabid dog waiting to attack. Penn — who also donned prosthetics for the role — was my favorite character mostly because he had some of the greatest dialogue in the entire movie. Whenever on screen, he speaks about his boxing days as a young man, his life in New York, or, in an example of a perfect metaphor, manifest destiny. Despite being certifiably insane, he’s a cool guy, and I’d be lying if I said that this movie didn’t romanticize the life of a gangster. When he finally does fly off the handle, you’ll be surprised at how much violence he can display and how little remorse he can feel. You do not want to disappoint this man, and one scene involving the punishment for a botched drug transport will leave you squirming in your seat. Everyone in LA fears Cohen and decides it’s better to let him get away with murder and corruption than take a bullet to the head.
Enter Sgt. John O’Mara, an honest cop and war veteran who refuses to stand idly by while judges and cops are being bought out and women are being used for prostitution. Even with a pregnant wife at home, he is not fazed by the danger. Josh Brolin plays the key lawman, just like he did for his last role in last year’s “Men in Black 3.” However, this time, instead of fighting aliens, he’s fighting gangsters. With his rugged facial features, Brolin was born to play this role, and despite these physical attributes, he emits a surprising amount of emotion that had me tearing up at certain points. At the start of the movie, he lets us know that fighting in the war taught him that all that is necessary for evil men to triumph is for good men to do nothing. This is one of the movie’s most pervasive themes, and it encapsulates the mindset of a post-World War II America. It also serves as the justification for the questionable acts committed by him and his crew.
Among the crew is an all-star cast including Ryan Gosling, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, Michael Pena and Robert Patrick. In particular, Gosling plays your typical 1940s wise guy who’s smooth with the ladies. His love interest is Grace Faraday, Cohen’s etiquette teacher and lover of sorts. She is played by the beautiful Emma Stone (who starred in Fleischer’s “Zombieland”), who doesn’t add much to the movie except revealing dresses and ruby-red lips.
The exploits of the gangster squad are the meat of the movie. We are rewarded with scenes of jailbreaks, car chases, shootouts and some humor to lighten the mood. One standout montage has the gang beating up mobsters while jazz music blares in the background. Throughout the movie, the newspapers keep us up to speed with their headlines of: “Who are the Gangster Squad?” They also help remind us of a time when newspapers were a major form of mass communication before television exploded in the 1950s.
As mentioned above, the look of the movie was one of my favorite aspects of the film. First off, the production design was spectacular, on par with such films as “Road to Perdition” and “The Godfather.” The filmmakers really did a terrific job of recreating a piece of 1940s America from the costumes all the way to the music. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that there was a time where men wore three-piece suits and fedoras just as casually as we now wear sweatpants and baseball caps.
In addition, the movie is chock full of big band and jazz music; it’s set in the age just before rock ‘n’ roll became big. The cinematography played a huge part as well, paying homage to the film noir of the 1940s and ’50s, making use of warm colors that reminded me of Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown.”
Even the end credits are creative, showing postcardlike snapshots of LA to serene ’40s music, a contrast to the violence of the film. Watching this movie is like stepping back in time to when the Hollywood sign still read “Hollywoodland.” As a period piece, it’s top notch.
It is obvious that Fleischer really did his homework. Yes, this movie has its fair share of cliches and cheese, but trust me, it’s the good kind. I don’t know if this movie redefines the mobster genre, but it sure as hell does it great justice.