Hackney Citizen

Gangster Squad – review

Sean Penn stars in this action thriller set in 1940s Los Angeles

Gangster Squad, film

Holt McCallany, left, and Sean Penn in Gangster Squad: 'naive and heavy-handed'. Photograph: Wilson Webb/AP

Based on real events in post-war Los Angeles in the late 1940s, Ruben Fleischer directs the story of the LAPD’s attempts to stop the “City of Angels” from being taken over by the Mob and in particular the ruthlessly ambitious hoodlum Mickey Cohen [Sean Penn].

When frustrated Sgt. John O’Mara’s attempts to bring Cohen’s men up on charges are continually scuppered, he realises just how far Cohen has officials, dirty cops and even judges in his pocket. Other cops and even his wife try to warn him about getting into too deep.

However, Police Chief Parker [Nick Nolte] is determined not to see LA fall into the hands of mobsters, especially after the city and country had only just seen off the terror of WWII. He sees the fire in the eyes of war veteran O’Mara and tells him to recruit a team of like-minded officers to take on Cohen and his men in an “off-the-books” war against mob rule.

O’Mara’s heavily-pregnant wife Connie [Mireille Enos] is terrified that this is a suicide mission that will tear their lives apart, but it becomes clear that she will not shake her husband’s sense of duty and she ends up assisting John in the recruitment process. The crew they enlist includes Sgt. Kenny Wooters [Ryan Gosling], Detectives Coleman Harris [Anthony Mackie], Conway Keeler [Giovanni Ribisi], Navidad Ramirez [Michael Peña] and old-school gunslinger Officer Max Kennard [Robert Patrick].

O’Mara instructs his men to leave their badges at home, as this is to be a battle fought under the radar, as they target Cohen’s capital and assets, including trying to destroy his casinos and intercept his drugs shipments/deals and if they need to crack some skulls then so be it, they will take heavy-artillery to the party.

As you might expect this is no easy assignment. Cohen has men everywhere and the reach of his influence, power and fear-driven grip on Los Angeles becomes more scarily-evident as the film rolls on. Soon they realise they are going to have to be smarter in their approach and this includes the brains of the bunch, Keeler, implementing a bugging set-up at Cohen’s home.

However, the ferocious former-boxer Cohen is not just muscle and entourage, and will not be easily outsmarted – the limelight-seeking mobster playboy was fast-mover in developing his gambling operations, including race-wires – and things get out of hand before too long and fear begins to creep into the crew.

Even the danger-hunting lothario of the group Kenny – who has the bare-faced audacity to be involved in a liaison with Cohen’s woman (trophy), Grace [Emma Stone] – gets cold feet, but stubborn leader O’Mara is unwilling to back down or slow down. He is made of true grit and his heroic – if reckless – attitude pulls them towards the brink. Kenny, almost brazenly states, “You’re a bull in a china shop Sarg, but we follow you anyway.”

This seems to suggest that the crew know they could quite possibly be fighting a losing battle and are in over their heads, but pride and principles to rid the city of Cohen’s mob rule has intoxicated them all.

Although Gangster Squad is inspired by a true story – the film is based on a the writing of LA Times journalist Paul Lieberman, who wrote Tales of the Gangster Squad, piecing together suppressed, secretive details about this special team – there is clearly a fair dose embellishment here, which sets the tone apart from the likes of American Gangster and LA Confidential, despite a similar story structure.

Zombieland director Fleischer’s has no intention in having this movie stick too close to reality, as he soaks a stellar cast in a colourful and playful comic-book-style palette, at times producing style-over-content visuals, dialogue and slow-mos. It is indulgent, but unless you are a stickler for straight-played gangster films, it is enjoyably so.

It may not go down as a classic portrayal, but this mash-up of Dick Tracy-meets-Sin City is compelling, despite it often allowing you forget is it at least based on true events and you can’t argue with the cast and some top performances from the ever-dependable Gosling, Brolin and Ribisi.

It might be all too much fun and too over-the-top for some viewers, but it would be hard to deny the immensity of another colourful-character turn from Penn, whose depiction of megalomaniac Cohen recalls Pacino’s vicious and irrepressible Tony Montana.

Gangster Squad (15)
Directed by Ruben Fleischer
Starring: Sean Penn, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Josh Brolin, Nick Nolte, Michael Peña, Robert Patrick, Giovanni Ribisi, Holt McCallany, Mireille Enos, Anthony Mackie, Jon Polito.
Running time: 113 minutes

Gangster Squad is showing at Rich Mix until 24 January and the Hackney Picturehouse until the end of January.

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2 Responses »

  1. I am the daughter of John O’Mara, the Los Angeles police officer currently portrayed in the Hollywood $75MM movie, Gangster Squad, set in 1949. However, the movie bears absolutely no resemblance to the true story of my Dad and his near obsession with the mobster Mickey Cohen. Paul Lieberman’s recently released book tells the story much more accurately. My Dad and his colleagues tracked Cohen through dogged police work, courage, nerve and intelligence. In the movie, my Dad is shown firing away in numerous bloody shootouts, killing and maiming. In real life, my Dad shot his gun once in twenty years. The movie’s release gives us an ideal forum to discuss our cultural obsession with gun violence in film. There was a true story, a great story, where the cops outsmarted the bad guys, but the truth was largely ignored by the script in favor of endless gunfire and sadistic murder and gives us clear, hard evidence of the movie industry maximizing violence to garner ticket sales.

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  2. When researching the roots of the real-life events of the time after seeing the film, it was indeed difficult to find anything to really corroborate most of the film’s action. It was clear there was huge embelleshment. As you say, it seems the director felt that a more trigger-happy, graphic novel-style movie would sell more tickets.

    Were you not sent any scripts or told their was going to be heavy exaggeration before they starting filming? I understand you are friends with Paul Lieberman. How much was he made aware of the way the producers and director were going to stretch the truth?

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