Does GANGSTER SQUAD cut the mustard as a 1940's crime thriller, or does it get lost in martinis and swing music?
Set in 1949 Los Angeles, Squad follows mob boss Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn, At Close Range) as he attempts to gain control of the city. A former championship boxer, Cohen uses brutal tactics to expand his territory while fending off bosses from Chicago. To him, it's just another bout to be fought: he's bought off local police and judges so they'll look the other way, leaving cops like John O'Mara (Josh Brolin, MIB3) worried that L.A. will soon become a dangerous place to live. A hero of WWII, O'Mara is approached by Chief Parker (Nick Nolte, 48 Hours) to lead a secret task force to take Cohen down, but the rules are simple: kill Cohen and someone else takes his place. O'Mara will have to arrest Cohen on real charges, something that the party animal Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling, Drive) doesn't believe can be done. He bickers when O'Mara extends an invitation to join his team, as Wooters enjoys the life that comes with looking the other way. To him, O'Mara's gesture seems more like a suicidal inconvenience than a chance to do right. With the help of his expectant wife Connie (Mireille Enos, The Killing), John puts together the quintessential team of operatives: the intelligence gatherer (Geovanni Ribisi, Saving Private Ryan), the tough fist (Anthony Mackie, Abraham Lincoln: VH), the big gun (Robert Patrick, Terminator 2), and The Lieutenant (Gosling), who later joins after fate intercedes. Caught in the middle of this war for L.A. is Cohen's girlfriend and socialite Grace Faraday (Emma Stone, The Amazing Spider-man) who enjoys the life but hates the random violence surrounding Cohen. As the team begins to exert their influence, Wooters falls for Faraday, forcing her to make a tough decision about her future and the fate of The Squad.
Director Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland) shows off L.A. at its most fashionable time, filling the scene with bold 40's colors, fedora hats, and plenty of cigarette smoke. The impressive scenery is partially due to the impressive camerawork of Dion Beebe (Memoirs of a Geisha) and fellow Zombieland Editor Alan Baumgarten. But it's not all smoke and mirrors: Fleishcer and newcomer Will Beall have scripted a funny, smart, and thoroughly enjoyable effort. Granted, there are moments of extreme violence, but all of them are designed to elicit an emotional response about the twisted methods that Cohen employs. They're absolutely essential to the story, helping the audience make clear distinctions and issue loyalties squarely on the The Squad's side. Beall seems to get the idea that just enough humor, mixed in with the drama, can make both even better, and Fleischer has assembled a terrific and deep cast to carry it off. The result looks and sounds like a classic 40's/50's gangster film, while respecting the slow-motion editing common in 21st Century film-making. Brolin and Gosling make a good duo, bouncing funny lines off each other one minute, while shooting their way out of a problem in the next. Penn delivers a memorable (albeit, over-the-top) performance as Cohen, while Mackie and Patrick deliver several hilarious lines. Patrick in particular looks great as the cowboy cop, while his 'partner' Navidad Ramirez (Michael Pena, End of Watch) rounds out this ass-kicking Squad.
Originally slated for a September 2012 release, Gangster Squad was unfortunately a victim of the Aurora shooting, suffering from a pulled early trailer and requiring a couple of res-hoots before its release date was eventually pushed back. I honestly couldn't tell where these edits occurred in the final product, further strengthening my approval of Fleischer's final version. It's unlikely these scenes would have altered its outcome, but perhaps we'll gain an unfiltered viewpoint once the Blu-ray is released. For now, enjoy the best delayed movie of 2012 in 2013 - the very good Gangster Squad is an enjoyable return to the gangster movies of old. Let's hope people remember this one long into the year - Gangster Squad is very, very good. It's rated R for violence and language and has a runtime of 113 minutes.
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