In Gangster Squad, Stylish Sets, Captivating Cinematography and Top-notch Billing Overcome Callow Direction

Emma Stone in Gangster Squad.

Emma Stone in Gangster Squad.

The new movie season begins with a bang. Gangster Squad is a period piece, set in 1949, about Jewish, Brooklyn-born thug Mickey Cohen, who moved to the West Coast to rule the underworld in Los Angeles, and the clandestine six-man squad of cops assigned to bring him down. It comes equipped with the disclaimer “Inspired by a true story,” which means it is about as embellished by false claims as Zero Dark Thirty. But with its exotic Hollywood locations, gorgeous, tailored, camera-ready clothes fit for a fashion layout, sleek cars, jazz music and glamorous cinematography by Dion Beebe (the Oscar winner who shot Memoirs of a Geisha), it’s a cross between L.A. Confidential and The Untouchables—a case of style over substance, but enough of both to sustain interest. Sometimes the two-fisted, assault-weapon adventures of the gangster squad seem more like the daredevil exploits of Superman, but you won’t yawn.

Who knows if the violence and torture administered to everyone who crossed the path of the criminal elements in postwar L.A. was a gruesome as it is depicted here, or if there ever was a gangster squad, but we do know the basics are rooted in fact. Mickey Cohen (coldly, menacingly played by Sean Penn with enough sangfroid to freeze the blood in your veins) was a ruthless, powerful madman with everyone from the LAPD to City Hall on his payroll, making it easy for him to control—and profit from—every racket from narcotics and prostitution to guns and illegal gambling. This movie is not only about one of the mafia’s most notorious scumbags, but also about two honest cops (Josh Brolin and Ryan Gosling), decorated with World War II combat medals and recruited by the L.A. police chief (Nick Nolte) to fight corruption, smash organized crime, clean up the LAPD and restore pride and respectability to the City of Angels. Directed by Ruben Fleischer, whose career has been largely devoted to trash like Zombieland, this movie does not come with impressive credentials or high expectations, but it grows on you as it goes along. The script by Will Beall, a former homicide detective, rings with tension and authenticity. The acting is uniformly first-rate, especially by Mr. Broslin and Mr. Gosling as the two war heroes drafted to start another kind of war. Unfortunately, the characters of their fearless, hand-picked comrades-in-arms (Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, Michael Peña and Robert Patrick) are less convincingly examined, and they come off as paper dolls in blue. The film’s least convincing sidebar is a sexual affair between Mr. Gosling and Mickey Cohen’s redheaded mistress, a high-class slut named Claire (Emma Stone) that is not only daring and foolish, but downright suicidal. This attempt to wedge some sexy allure into the quiet moments between shootouts fails because the two actors have no chemistry, even in the nude.

The best thing about Gangster Squad is how they got the 1940s accoutrements right. The coupes and sedans, at a time when cars had as much personality and flash as the people who drove them, instead of looking exactly alike, are thrilling to watch. The Hollywood stucco, the band singers in the neon-lit clubs and mafioso bars who all sound like June Christy—it’s as good as it gets in the movies. The violence perpetrated by Cohen is also entertaining in a grim sort of way—locking up innocent girls fresh off the train and keeping them hopped up on Mexican dope, burning his own goons alive in closed elevator shafts. Cohen organizes a dragnet to wipe out the gangster squad, and you remain glued to the screen to see which cast members are still alive in time for the lavish finale. No spoiler alert here, but I’m telling you that when the squad arrives to serve a warrant for Cohen’s arrest and faces an army of gangsters who have taken over an entire Los Angeles hotel decorated for Christmas, it’s a denouement worthy of grand opera, guaranteed to take your breath away.

Gangster Squad is uneven. Sean Penn, with his flattened nose and his face lined with scars of rage, is sometimes so harrowing you wouldn’t want to meet him in broad daylight. Other times, falling back on Cohen’s early days as a prizefighter, he shadow boxes with his fists while barking orders, like a one-man skit on Saturday Night Live. And some of the choices that only an unskilled director would have made—a drill drives through a victim’s skull, and when the blood splatters against the glass, the scene cuts to a raw hamburger patty hitting the fire of a backyard barbecue grill—just make you wince. You don’t know whether to laugh or scream. Despite the flaws and the occasional corn, this is still one of the most exhilarating and entertaining action films in recent memory. Whatever else you may think, you’ll go away from Gangster Squad knowing you’ve been to the movies.

rreed@observer.com

GANGSTER SQUAD
Running Time 113 minutes
Written by Will Beall and
Paul Lieberman (book)
Directed by Ruben Fleischer
Starring Sean Penn, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone