erik lundegaard

Gangster Squad

Gangster Squad (2013)


“Gangster Squad” isn’t a bad movie but given the talent involved, and the story told, you can imagine better—a movie, say, shot in the manner of “Zodiac.” Something that feels true. Or even possible.

Written byWill Beall
Paul Lieberman
Directed byRuben Fleischer
StarringSean Penn
Ryan Gosling
Nick Nolte
Emma Stone
Josh Brolin

Instead, directed by Ruben Fleischer (“Zombieland”), and written by Will Beall from the book by Paul Lieberman, “Gangster Squad” is quick-paced and broadly drawn and almost cartoonish. Sean Penn’s Mickey Cohen, who goes to prison for murder in 1949 rather than for tax evasion in 1951 and 1961, is so encased in makeup and over-the-top mannerisms as to seem like a Dick Tracy villain. Josh Brolin’s Sgt. John O’Mara, the man who brings him to justice, is so cool and calm and expressionless as to seem like Dick Tracy.

The movie opens under the HOLLYWOODLAND sign, with Penn doing Cohen doing Bela Lugosi: “The children of the night. What beautiful music they make.” Is this a commentary on how the movies warp us? How, even in 1949, even gangsters were aping movie roles?

A gangster from Chicago is visiting and Cohen, a former middleweight boxer and current Jewish crime lord, greets him by tying him between two cars and ordering the drivers in opposite directions. Splat. “Welcome to Los Angeles,” he says, rhyming it with sleaze.

Meanwhile, his opposite, O’Mara, with a reluctant partner in tow, rescues a pretty blonde who wants to be the next Lana Turner (movie star, discovered) from the clutches of Cohen’s men. “Don’t you know whose place this is?” he’s asked, numerous times. He doesn’t care. But by the time he brings them to the station they’re already free. The town is bought. The town is dirty. Lawyers, judges, cops.

Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) knows this and likes the cut of O’Mara’s jib. So he asks him to create his own elite, unsullied unit to work behind the scenes to bring down Cohen. He calls them … the Untouchables.

Sorry, no. They’re called the Gangster Squad. But it’s L.A.’s version of the Untouchables. You’ve got the expert shot in Max Kennard (Robert Patrick), the intellectual in Conwell Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi), the ladies man in Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) and the black guy in Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie). They’re all tough guys. They all fought in the war. They don’t see the point in fighting for freedom abroad only to run from Cohen in LA.

It’s a nice set-up and we get some nice lines. Wooters, before he’s aboard, warns off O’Mara:

Sarge, the whole town’s underwater. You're grabbing a bucket when you should be grabbing a bathing suit.

But given the chance, the movie goes for the broad rather than fine stroke. It falls too easily into the grooves of its genre. Here’s the montage of the good guys ruining the bad guy’s operations. Here’s the bad guy fulminating. Here’s the good guys celebrating too early. Here’s the serious conversation before the good guys are set-up and one of them dies. (As in “Untouchables,” it’s the intellectual.) Here’s the bad guy triumphant and the good guys at a loss. But wait! Here’s the final chance! Here’s the showdown! Here’s the guns blazing! Here’s our main hero and our main villain going toe-to-toe!

And here’s the final comeuppance: Cohen in prison for murder and dying by lead pipe in 1949.

Except it’s a lie. Cohen went to prison for tax evasion twice, became a national celebrity, and died of stomach cancer in 1976.

Hooray for Hollywood.

—July 5, 2013

© 2013 Erik Lundegaard