The early to mid-1900s was a very interesting time when discussing the topic of crime and criminals. At the same time, graphic novel style action and visuals are really entertaining to look at, but they get even more entertaining when they are infused with a layer of noir over top of it. Think the Sin City movies and graphic novels, but that’s not what I’m here to talk about. Instead I want to look at Ruben Fleischer’s film Gangster Squad, a movie that was never destined to win any Academy Awards, but holy hell, it couldn’t have been more fun.
The year: 1949. The city: Los Angeles, the City of Angels. Jewish gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) has made a name for himself through his unapologetic brutality and no nonsense way of business. Along with Cohen, corrupt officials and officers of the law run the streets so the criminals get their way and stay out of their hair. This angers Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) to no end, so when he’s assigned to create an off the books task force to personally take care of these criminals he jumps at the opportunity. Along with his friend Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), O’Mara creates a team and begins wiping the violence off the streets of L.A. in the only way they can: more violence. Complications arise, however, when Cohen begins to learn the identities of these men, while Wooter strikes up a relationship with Cohen’s girl, Grace Faraday (Emma Stone).
I’ve heard a lot of complaints about Gangster Squad that I really don’t understand. All this negativity about how inaccurate it is, how much violence is in it, and how seriously the movie takes itself. Well, first of, it’s pretty clear from the get go that this movie isn’t meant to be realistic. It’s meant to be an ultra-stylized look at a pretty crazy time in American history. Now listen, I do like movies to be accurate when it’s clear that I’m watching a pretty serious historical movie or biopic, but it’s so obvious that that’s not what Gangster Squad is supposed to be. This movie works so well as an action/noir movie, it makes me jealous that I didn’t make it.
So while the action is almost too fun to even process, I have to give some major recognition to screenwriter Will Beall, especially since this is his first feature film screenplay. He knocks it out of the park with all of the tough talking, gangster and noir dialogue. Some of the one liners in this movie really made me crack up, but also respect the cleverness behind them. The actors all play their parts to perfection, with Ryan Gosling sort of stealing the show. He provides much of the comic relief, and when I say comic I mean really funny lines of dialogue. It made me wonder what the reaction would have been if they made a movie like this in the golden age of Hollywood. All hell would have broken loose.
It can be argued that Gangster Squad is mostly style and little substance, but I don’t really agree with that. The story and characters aren’t boring, and each character has their own distinct personalities. I think what people are saying is, “Why isn’t this movie like The Untouchables?” I really can’t stress this point enough that this movie is solely meant for entertainment, and honestly I don’t see how someone couldn’t be even a little entertained by it. Watching Gangster Squad is like watching a comic book of seedy 1940s crime playing out right before your eyes.
Much like Van Helsing and The Matrix Reloaded, I will defend Gangster Squad until the day I die. Not every movie has to have some deep message or generate debate for it to be a really good movie. As pulpy, popcorn entertainment, Gangster Squad is top tier fun. The stylized actions scenes, complete with plenty of slow motion and Tommy guns, kept my eyes glued to the screen and left me with a huge smile on my face. What Fleischer, Beall, and the rest of the cast and crew has created is an explosive, graphic novel of a movie that looks at the 1940s, noir, and criminals in an over the top, and most of all fun way.