Gangster Squad stretches its true story status as wide as Sean Penn’s rubber face…
A soldier who has returned from World War II to serve in the Los Angeles police force, questioning the changes in the world he fought to defend as he interrogates suspects and gets into gun fights and car chases? Anyone who has played the videogame L.A. Noire will recognise the themes in Gangster Squad.
Yet Will Beall’s (TV’s Castle) screenplay is actually based on Paul Lieberman’s series of articles entitled Tales From The Gangster Squad. This ‘true life’ story, set in Los Angeles in 1949, follows Brooklyn-born mob king Mickey Cohen’s (Sean Penn) attempt to take over the town. With judges, politicians and the police in his pocket, plus a ruthless policy of killing or intimidating witnesses, it seems nothing can stop him.
That’s until Nick Nolte’s police chief asks Sergeant John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) to create a rogue outfit of cops willing to do whatever it takes to break up Cohen’s operation. It’s not long before he’s rounded up the wise-cracking slacker (Ryan Gosling), the tough black beat cop (Anthony Mackie), the sharp shooter (Robert Patrick), the brain (Giovanni Ribisi) and the sidekick (Michael Peña).
It’s a cracking set up that somehow never reaches its full potential. Penn’s turn as Cohen doesn’t help, gurned so much his rubber face wouldn’t have looked out of place amongst the puppets on Spitting Image.
The only thing stopping Penn’s performance as a sneering Cohen from being criticised more heavily is Nolte. Whether he knew he was in the movie or not – and anyone who has seen his red carpet experience might ask – is questionable. And the actor hasn’t just let himself go, he’s ballooned to the point where he’d be in the running to play the Marshmallow Man in Ghostbusters: The Musical. It’s a sad sight to see.
Any hope of deeper character explorations for the Squad themselves, as they wonder if what they’re doing is really right, are also lost along the way as their throwaway psychoanalysis barely has time to be heard between stylised action sequences. Wider themes looking at how a society deals with the return of a well-trained mass of killers from active service also get short shrift.
Despite all of those concerns, Gangster Squad is actually very entertaining. Some genuine humour early on lightens the tone, the film is stylishly shot by Oscar-winning director of photography Dion Beebe and the real life locations make you want to book that flight out of grey old Britain right now.
For once even the dreaded word ‘reshoots’ – which usually suggests the first cut wasn’t strong enough – is not an issue. A scene showing a shoot-out in a cinema was deemed to be too heavy going for the audience, given the real life theatre shootings that happened during a Dark Knight Rises screening in Aurora.
Gangster Squad hasn’t lost any of its bite because of that omission. It’s not easy to accuse a film of skimping on the violence when it starts with a man in chains between two revving cars and segues into a bloody fight against multiple opponents.