A throwback in nearly every sense, "Gangster Squad" takes place in the glamorous Los Angeles of 1949, a time of Tommy guns, Zippo lighters and felt fedoras. Its script, too, feels old enough to have been typed on an Underwood, but that's all right. A gorgeous cast and some hard-hitting action make this period flick a mostly enjoyable trip to Hollywoodland.
Written with square-jawed earnestness by former LAPD detective Will Beall from Paul Lieberman's nonfiction book, "Gangster Squad" stars Josh Brolin as John O'Mara, an incorruptible police sergeant (and intrusive narrator) vainly fighting crime in a town ruled by ruthless kingpin Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn, more mumbly than menacing). Hard-charging Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) finally orders O'Mara to assemble a secret, black-ops-style team to bring Cohen down.
O'Mara's dirty half-dozen come from diverse ethnic and filmic lineages. Michael Peña and Anthony Mackie are the minorities; Robert Patrick, as Max "Hopalong" Kennard, moseys in with a drooping mustache and six-shooter; Giovanni Ribisi plays the wiretapping techie; Ryan Gosling is the insouciant Jerry Wooters, who happens to be fooling around with Cohen's moll, Grace (Emma Stone, appealing though still looking young for the role).
The squadmates blow things up, commit arson and shoot people in the face, but viewers who were discomfited by the morally murky torture scenes in "Zero Dark Thirty" will find everything spelled out clearly here. The characters wonder aloud whether the means justify the ends. The answer: Yep, sure do!
But the movie is mostly fun, and you might even forgive the self-serious moments ("My badge is the city of Los Angeles," says our hero). Ruben Fleischer ("Zombieland") directs with panache, cinematographer Dion Beebe ("Chicago") makes everything look swell, and it's all just enough for "Gangster Squad" to get by.
PLOT In 1949, a group of off-the-books cops battles Los Angeles crime lord Mickey Cohen.
RATING R (strong violence, language, smoking)
BOTTOM LINE A good-looking cast and strong action sequences are just enough to forgive the cornball script. As for Penn's overacting, that's another matter.
Brolin plays a modern gangster
Josh Brolin says he didn't watch old gangster movies as part of the research for "Gangster Squad," in which he plays squad leader Sgt. John O'Mara. In those films, everyone talks with a crisp -- almost stilted -- cadence, and "Gangster Squad" is more contemporary. Also, those movies are very dark, the opposite of the look of Brolin's new movie.
"I think the film has a very colorful palette. I think it looks very rich. Usually when you have films like that, like 'L.A. Confidential,' they usually are desaturated. There's a milkiness they put into it to make it look more authentic, and I don't think that was attempted on this movie and I'm glad it wasn't attempted. It's like a new era of gangster movies," Brolin said.
His pre-filming work schedule included getting together with castmates, including Ryan Gosling and Giovanni Ribisi. This gave them a chance to get comfortable together and to go over the dialogue. There was a lot of ad-libbing in the movie, but in Brolin's case his dialogue was cut down to give his character a more quiet power.
"You don't want to mess with this guy, but you want him on your side. He's willing to think outside the box. He's unwilling to be bought. There's something dangerous about him, and he's willing to do whatever he has to." -- Fresno Bee