Simplistically cartoonish and even pulpier than “Pulp Fiction,” “Gangster Squad” won’t be remembered as one of the crime genre’s great cinematic outings. In all fairness though, the film isn’t trying to be the next “L.A. Confidential.”
Director Ruben Fleischer, who made the wickedly entertaining “Zombieland,” wants nothing more than to produce a stylish, splashy B movie with a high coolness factor. For what it is, “Gangster Squad” should satisfy anybody with a lust for shootouts. Those expecting a gangster flick with a ton of substance, however, will likely be disappointed.
Sean Penn gives a one-dimensionally over-the-top, yet undeniably fun, performance as Mickey Cohen, a ruthless gangster who was at the top of his game in the ’40s and ’50s. Nick Nolte is William Henry Parker, the LAPD police chief fixated on bringing the mob kingpin down.
Where Cohen and Parker are based on actual figures from this era, the rest of the cast is mostly comprised of the vastly fictionalized caricatures that only exist in the realm of movies.
Parker assigns his No. 1 guy, Josh Brolin’s Sgt. John O’Mara, to ensemble a ragtag group of cops to catch Cohen. O’Mara accepts this dangerous mission even though he’s expecting a baby with Connie, his lovely wife well played by Mireille Enos.
“Gangster Squad” easily could have limited Connie to another whiny, boring throwaway housewife like so many other cop movies. But the film actually does a surprisingly commendable job at creating a meaningful relationship between the spouses. It’s fun to see Connie get on board with her husband’s assignment, helping him to handpick the members for his crime-fighting team.
The squad in question consists of Anthony Mackie as the switchblade slinging Rocky, Robert Patrick as the grumpy, old Max, Giovanni Ribisi as the brainy Conway, and Michael Peña as the rookie Navidad.
The most interesting of the bunch is the always-slick Ryan Gosling as Jerry, a police sergeant who naturally doesn’t enjoy playing by the rules. Jerry is pursuing Emma Stone’s Grace, a classic dame complete with a dynamite wardrobe and flawless figure.
Just as they did in “Crazy, Stupid Love,” Gosling and Stone have tremendous chemistry here. The only roadblock in their romance is that Grace is also dating the possessive Cohen.
While Will Beall’s screenplay is fine in terms of story structure and character development, his dialog is often beyond hokey. He tries desperately hard to recreate the witty writing style of a 1940s film noir, but the words never feel genuine.
In the hands of a lesser director and acting ensemble, “Gangster Squad” might have been one of the lamer movies of the new year. The film fortunately has a more than capable cast to sell these occasionally corny lines and make the script work. Fleischer’s energized direction additionally helps to keep the plot moving at a swift pace.
Again, the joys of “Gangster Squad” are solely based on style over substance. You want to see flashy car chases, shootouts, and glossy guys in fedoras? Then this movie is for you. Although it may be nothing more than eye candy, “Gangster Squad” did admittedly entertain me from beginning to end.
There’s no denying that this recommendation is superficial. But in my book, there’s no shame in liking an imperfect movie for shallow reasons.
• Ahwatukee native and Desert Vista graduate Nick Spake is a student at Arizona State University. He has been working as a film critic for five years, reviewing movies on his website, NICKPICKSFLICKS.com. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.