Film review: Gangster Squad

posted at 9:31 am on January 13, 2013 by Ed Morrissey

Last year, I resolved to see a new film each week and write a review, but a back injury and the election got in the way of that effort.  This year, I’m off to a fresh start … even if Hollywood isn’t.  Gangster Squad offers a collection of clichés and wooden performances that ends up providing no real tension or surprises, even with a talented cast on hand.

Gangster Squad purports to be “inspired by a true story” about legendary gangster Mickey Cohen, and it’s certainly true that Mickey Cohen was an actual gangster.  It’s also true that Mickey Cohen lived in Los Angeles. There was an actual Gangster Squad in the LAPD, as the LA Times’ Paul Lieberman reported in 2008, and which was undeniably the inspiration behind James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential. After that, you’re on your own, historically speaking. The film starts off with a psychopathic bit of violence from the ersatz version of Cohen (Sean Penn), along with a ludicrous damsel-in-distress rescue by Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), and it only gets more ridiculous from there.  LAPD Chief William Parker (Nick Nolte) commissions O’Mara to form a Gangster Squad to wreck Cohen’s crime empire, telling him to go to war rather than enforce the law.  O’Mara collects a small team of oddballs to take Cohen down, assisted by O’Mara’s pregnant wife Connie (Mirielle Enos).

If this sounds familiar, well, it should.  Gangster Squad borrows from The Untouchables in the same way that Cohen “borrowed” from his victims.  We get the old and forgotten veteran (an almost unrecognizable Robert Patrick), the rookie Latino (Michael Peña), and the Charles Martin Smith-esque geek in Giovanni Ribisi, along with a couple of additions in Anthony Mackie and Ryan Gosling as the jaded, cynical, almost-but-not-quite corrupt cop whose inner honor will win the day.  Oh, by the way, Gosling’s Sgt. Jerry Wooters is sleeping with Mickey Cohen’s girlfriend Grace Faraday (Emma Stone), in only the first of a series of laughable plot twists.

What makes Gangster Squad so remarkably unremarkable is the utter lack of any moral tension.  No one seems to have much trouble with the idea of turning a half-dozen policemen into Murder and Mayhem Incorporated.  The entire amount of time spent by the protagonists on this question is less than one minute of screen time, which went something like this:

RIBISI: I’m having qualms about becoming just like Cohen and his guys.

BROLIN: We’re nothing like Cohen and his guys.

RIBISI: Thanks, I feel much better now.

Even the cast can’t redeem this film.  Brolin walks through the picture with his jaw squarely set, glowering all the way.  Penn certainly provides malevolence in his depiction of Cohen as a psychopathic loose cannon, but not much else.  Gosling and Stone do a little better, but the arc of their romance is rushed and hardly believable. Everyone else is wasted on screen, including the rest of the Squad, who provide little else than archetypes and bullets.  The end features a voice-over epilogue that reminds everyone just how contrived this mess was for the previous 110 minutes, after a Lethal Weapon-esque final fistfight between the main protagonist and antagonist.

Contrast this with The Untouchables, which I think is overrated but at least addressed the moral issue of crossing the line between law enforcement and thuggery.  For that matter, skip The Untouchables and watch the infinitely superior L.A. Confidential , which dealt with the same issues in nearly the same time and place — but put the thugs in the right moral position, and managed to get the Cohen story more accurately than this movie did even as a subplot.  The result of this moral abdication is a series of violent battles in which we are supposed to root for law enforcement to act like a rival gang, a series in which bullets get sprayed all over the screen without even a stylish, original depiction (as in The Untouchables) as some sort of compensation.

And let’s talk about that violence, especially with Hollywood busily lecturing us about gun control these days — including, hilariously, a few of these cast members.  This film does nothing but glorify violence, not just as stylish entertainment but also as the answer to crime and social problems.  It’s an almost-unending series of bullet eruptions that numbs much more than it excites. It’s not just this film either; the trailers featured a nearly continuous stream of upcoming films that sells gun violence as entertainment.  The only two films out of eight that didn’t try to sell themselves as bullet-fests were The Call, a thriller with Halle Berry about a serial killer, and 42, the long-awaited Jackie Robinson biopic with Chadwick Boseman and Harrison Ford.  None of the others demonstrated any particular wit or originality, and will probably make Gangster Squad look like an Oscar contender in comparison.

Filmmakers, heal thyselves.

Gangster Squad is rated R for violence, strong language, and, er … violence.  It’s not appropriate for children of any age, and I’d argue not really appropriate for anyone else, either.

Update: R. S.McCain explains why noir works, and why this doesn’t:

The classic film noir set-up requires a flawed protagonist who finds himself trapped in a situation where right and wrong are not clear, where sinister individuals are trying to deceive him, and he must rely on his wits to survive. Also, there is usually a dame involved in the problem. …

Film noir is never just a shoot-’em-up. The danger of violence – a sense of menace — is very real in film noir, but the movie is not about violence.

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Will NOT pay one penny to see anything that Penn is in. Too bad too as it looks like a decent movie. Will have to wait to see if some enterprising person will “spread the wealth” and drop it on the ground for everyone else if I bother at all.

kim roy on January 13, 2013 at 5:02 PM

There hasn’t been anything interesting enough that I can’t wait until it is on demand on cable.

Brat on January 13, 2013 at 10:18 AM

definitely don’t see Jack Reacher

Slade73 on January 13, 2013 at 10:21 AM

Kind of agree. It’s everything you’ve seen before, but if you just want to waste a few hours on something loud and serviceable it fits the bill. If you go in knowing it’s a loud Tom Cruise movie with a silly fight in the rain, car chase, lots of violence and rote dialogue/plot you’ll have a good time. Sometimes that’s enough. ;)

kim roy on January 13, 2013 at 5:09 PM

I do have to say that Sean Penn seems like a fantastic actor to play a psycho. After all, it seems all the folks he idolizes fit the label.

Dawnsblood on January 13, 2013 at 5:16 PM

As far as L.A.-this-era noir goes, nothing’s topped Chinatown yet. Even if it was directed by a pedo.

WhatSlushfund on January 13, 2013 at 5:43 PM

Sean Penn can’t act.

Re-examine his work (if you can stand it) and you will see he CANNOT ACT.

HE believes his an ‘artist’ and he deludes himself to think he can act.
The closest thing he ever did to not-playing-Sean/Communist/Penn was Spicoli.
And even in that he was just Sean-Stoned-Penn.

HammerNH on January 13, 2013 at 5:45 PM

L.A. Confidential was a great movie, as are the two soundtrack CDs. And yeah, it should have won Best Picture, not the sappy Titanic.

Ward Cleaver on January 13, 2013 at 6:19 PM

Maybe Ed should watch Haunted House next week. /

22044 on January 13, 2013 at 6:36 PM

Ward Cleaver on January 13, 2013 at 6:19 PM

I don’t put any stock in the ‘Academy Awards’ – the whole thing’s a big pretentious liberal joke. As is evidenced by the very fact that either of those films was up for an award. But I did think that Titanic was a better movie in general than LA Confidential. I mean, yeah, it was goofy teen mush. But, as a genre film, it was great goofy teen mush. I mean, common, that scene where the musicians kept playing while the ship was sinking? That film had everything in it. Plus it’s always a pleasure to see Kate Winslet butt-ass naked.

There is, after all, a reason that the film was referenced in this vid:

That vid was more deserving of an AA than either Titanic or LAC.

WhatSlushfund on January 13, 2013 at 6:59 PM

But I did think that Titanic was a better movie in general than LA Confidential.

I have to agree with Ed here. LAC was not only good but brilliant on practically every level. It will be recognized as a classic in 30 years.

BTW, you can be pretentious when you dominate the worldwide entertainment industry and are the primary source of American soft power abroad. If the Chinese and others actually paid for the American films that are an addiction throughout Asia, the trade deficit would be far lower.

bayam on January 13, 2013 at 8:13 PM

Good to know you’re contributing to Penn et al’s wealth, and me indirectly through you. Half the country is emptying the stores of ammunition and you are writing reviews of a movie as if beliefs of the people behind it are irrelevant. I don’t make Nazi comparisons cause they’re so yesterday, but Hitler did some nice little water colorings while in Vienna. Would you critique them on their merits as if what the painter was didn’t matter?
I gave up Jackie Can a few days ago. I can give up Hot Air. And yes, it’s that important. Our side just now seems to be getting that “it’s the culture stupid,” and your reviewing Sean Penn movies.

douglucy on January 13, 2013 at 10:11 PM

No, he gets the crab beaten out of him, by Josh Brolin, his gang, gets carved up by bullets so, and he gets sent to prison for life

narciso on January 13, 2013 at 11:31 AM

S. D. on January 13, 2013 at 10:14 PM

This one felt like a comic book. The costumes, props and set were impeccable but the story a bit weak, and the fighting/shooting scenes too long. Took a bit of effort to stay concentrated.

AlexB on January 13, 2013 at 10:15 PM

I will not go see a movie with Sean Penn in it.

Alana on January 13, 2013 at 10:47 PM

heh! great review, ed.

Put some ice on that bullet hole, Hollywood….

ted c on January 13, 2013 at 11:44 PM

saw The Impossible last weekend.

heart wrenching and touching.

ted c on January 13, 2013 at 11:44 PM

I quit watching the output coming from Hollywood years ago. Most modern films are crap. And why would I want to fund the liberal collective? I’ll read a good book instead.

zoyclem on January 14, 2013 at 7:25 AM

…or whatever, the president is a dog, who cares? Coming June something.

Derp de der!

roy_batty on January 14, 2013 at 9:59 AM

My bartender’s uncle used to play poker with Mickey Cohen. And yeah, he’d lose. What, you thought maybe he was stupid?

mojo on January 14, 2013 at 4:21 PM

Penn certainly provides malevolence in his depiction of Cohen as a psychopathic loose cannon, but not much else.

It was easy for Penn to do this role. As he mows down his victims with a Tommy gun, he is imagining that they are the living embodiment of the US Constitution, and he really gets into it with feeling.

VelvetElvis on January 15, 2013 at 8:14 AM