THE REEL: ‘Gangster Squad’ is weak at times, but still a guilty pleasure

Ben Conniff

In the film “Gangster Squad,” director Ruben Fleischer (“Zombieland” and “30 Minutes or Less”) gives us a stylized account of real-life mobster Mickey Cohen’s involvement in organized crime and the police outfit that tried to stop him in 1940s Los Angeles. 

The film tries to mimic big brother Brian De Palma’s “The Untouchables,” but doesn’t quite make it on account of spotty writing from “Castle” scribe Will Beall. Having said that, “Gangster Squad” is still a blast for its colorful cast of characters, gorgeous costumes, dazzling production design, and exciting action sequences. 

Sean Penn is positively electrifying as Mickey Cohen. Much like DiCaprio in “Django Unchained,” Penn takes what he’s given and crafts a villain so foreboding, so sinister and so much fun to watch that it’s worth the price of admission just to watch him work. I don’t think any other actor could have captured the color and camp better than Penn. Everyone else is just trying to keep up.  

Ryan Gosling fits like a glove as Sgt. Jerry Wooters, a role that’s tailor-made for him. Josh Brolin is solid as always as Sgt. John O’Mara, head of the Gangster Squad. Think of him as the Eliot Ness of the group. 

Robert Patrick is also lots of fun as Officer Max Kennard, the cowboy of the police force who’s shot more men than any cop in town. He’s funny and makes a nice gun-slinging addition to the squad. Anthony Mackie fares well, but is ultimately forgettable in his role as Officer Coleman Harris. 

Everyone else in the cast is squandered, which is a shame because that’s loads of talent down the drain. No doubt they could’ve made the film even better if given more to work with. Emma Stone is dismissable as the femme fatale Grace Faraday, proving to be nothing more than the classic damsel-in-distress. 

Michael Peña is given little chance to shine as Officer Navidad Ramirez, the ethnic young padawan of Officer Kennard, taking a back seat to the bigger characters like Cohen, Wooters, O’Mara, and even Faraday. Giovanni Ribisi also stars as the squad’s tech man Officer Conway Keeler. He’s decent, but doesn’t steal the show. With a stronger script, who knows what good these capable actors could’ve done for the “Gangster Squad”?

As far as presentation, “Gangster Squad” effectively captures the glitz and glamour of Old Hollywood. The sets and costumes are amazing, nailing the flamboyancy of early-20th century social life right on the head. Even the film itself looks polished and glossy in the way it’s lit. Some might find fault with this for looking manicured and cheesy. I normally would, but in this case it works because of the setting. 

In addition to hiring the best production design team possible, Fleischer also crafts some nifty action sequences. Shootouts, car chases, gasoline fires and fisticuffs might all be considered standard gangster movie fare, but the director manages to keep things from being dull and repetitive. 

In the end, the only crime this “gangster” is guilty of is inconsistent writing. But with Penn’s arresting performance (pun intended) and sets that bring the golden age of Los Angeles to life, “Gangster Squad” proves to be a colorful noire that’s delightfully, if sometimes mindlessly, over-the-top. It’s a guilty pleasure that’s as fun as they come.