Movies as a major form of entertainment came along at the ideal time in American history. The nation was still recovering from the First World War and global events were once again poised to enter the second. The Midwest, the source of much of the grain consumed in the county was devastated by ecological disaster turning fertile ground into dust blowing away on the winds. Finally the bottom fell out of the economy plunging the world into a fiscal and emotional depression that forced millions to scrounge for sufficient work to eat for that day. Movies offered a perfect way to escape from the miseries of reality into thrills, drama and excitement that took them out of the world at least for a couple of hours. One of the most popular types of movies then was the gangster flick, people could live vicariously through lawless men that boldly took what they wanted and lived better than the establishment lackeys they blamed for much of their plight. Much of this was targeted on the banks whose sudden collapse resulted in their life savings to evaporate. When a mobster stole from the banks the audience felt vindicated. The crime thriller has persisted throughput time still quite viable in the current marketplace. One of recent offerings is aptly titled, ‘Gangster Squad’. Although not among the best constructed movies to come around there is sufficient action to make for a reasonable beer and pizza flick when the guys drop over.
The movie is set in a workable but not commonly utilized time and familiar location; Los Angles in 1949, the city was experiencing a post WWII boom and gearing up for the prosperity of the fifties with the men returning from military service with back pay and GI bill benefits. With disposable income readily available the environment was conducive to the criminal element anxious to help relieve people of that cash. One of the most the most successful members of the underworld was Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), responsible for a sizable portion of the criminal activity in the greater LA area. His long term plans include expanding his enterprise to encompass a large chunk of the western United States. As with any increase in the world of organize crime there is an accompanying increase in violence and ever mounting body count, it understandably became a concern for the public which resulted in the focus of law enforcement targeting Cohen and his cohorts. Of greater immediate concern to the criminal boss id how he has showed up on the radar of the Chicago mob who are notorious for not dealing amiably with rivals.
LA Police Chief Bill Parker (Nick Nolte) is commissioned to put together a special task force specifically mandated to deal with the organized crime problem especially Cohen. The first potential recruit comes to his attention after a publicized act of heroism. Sgt. John O'Mara (Josh Brolin) saves the life of a young girl about to fall victim to one of Cohen’s minions. During the War O’Mara served in a special operations squad where he received commando training at a covert training facility. He intends to bring the same military techniques to instigate a guerilla war on Cohen and his gang. Brining the fight proactively to the criminals goes over well with his superiors and is good press with the public but is a matter of concern for his pregnant wife, Connie (Mireille Enos). O’Mara sets out to assemble his team recruiting from members of the force with exceptional, albeit unorthodox skills; Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi), expert in electronic phone surveillance, veteran detective Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie) and Max Kennard (Robert Patrick), a cop with a perchance for killing gangsters. The new unit is complete with the addition of Kennard’s partner, Navidad Ramirez (Michael Peña). The only one approached that declines joining is O’Mara’s longtime friend, Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling).
The first impression I had when watching this movie is the similarities in its construction to one of the best crime series on television, Michael Mann’s ‘Crime Story’. Wooters has a confidential informant within Cohen’s organization, Jack Whalen (Sullivan Stapleton). The professionalism of the sergeant is compromised when he becomes obsessed with a young woman with a romantic relationship with Cohen, Grace Faraday (Emma Stone). Despite the potential danger both to his investigation and life Wooters and Faraday become involved. His judgment is further clouded when a friend of his, an innocent boy, Pete (Austin Adams), is collateral damage during a hit Cohen placed on rival criminal, Jack Dragna (Jon Polito). The aggressive action O’ Mara and his team bring to the mob garners them a name with the press, ‘The Gangster Squad’.
The movie does hit all the correct notes necessary for a mob flick. There is a heated and viscous rivalry between major organized crime families, a team of dedicated and highly motivated police officers working on the razor sharp edge of legally sanctioned methods and a romantic entanglement between a cop and a beautiful mob girlfriend that obfuscates the action against the kingpin. Unfortunately there is little infused in the mix to differentiate the movie from the hundreds made in a similar vein. The screenplay by Will Beall based on the novel by Paul Lieberman relates a tale related numerous times before. While the directorial style of Ruben Fleischer is competent enough but doesn’t have the edge necessary to set it apart from the rest. Much of this is evident to anyone that is a fan of the original classic gangster movies of the golden age. The cast is very good but cannot live up to the legacy left by Jimmy Cagney, Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart. Those are might big shoes to fill with performances they extended past the genre to be some of the best ever recorded on film. From a stylistic perspective this is understandable. Fleischer’s previous experience was concentrated on MTV daredevil series featuring extreme behavior geared towards the late teenage boys. It takes time to move from so called reality television to a scripted movie format especially considering a vehicle in this category is traditionally dependent on a tightly crafted screenplay, a mood setting visual style and tightly controlled performances.
Commentary With Director Ruben Fleischer