Gangster Squad is hit and miss

This week, Zombieland director Ruben Fleischer brings us a new gun fest. But be warned, Gangster Squad is not for the faint-hearted; two people are dismembered within the first ten minutes. We’re plunged straight into the mob-dominated LA of 1949, where the water is murky with blood and the air is thick with gunfire.

The premise: good guys; bad guys. Good guys have to act like bad guys to beat bad guys. Are good guys still good guys? Although the situation is hardly original, it’s fairly well-handled by Fleischer.

‘40s LA looks great, from panoramic side streets and the recreation of real-life speakeasy ‘Slapsy Maxies’, to small period details such as the colourful Los Angeles map which marks out the first victim of Micky Cohen and his cronies in the high-octane opening.

Fleischer’s movie is also a lesson in taking the phrase ‘based on true events’ with a large pinch of salt. For example, the film’s central car chase is well-orchestrated but leaves a nagging thought in the mind – could vintage Plymouths and Hudsons really do this? The answer is of course no, the cars were specially modified for the scene.

The film is consistently visually powerful, but the majority of the characters are massively underwritten. The gangster squad are a collection of stereotypes and clichés; there’s Josh Brolin’s anti-heroic leader John ‘Sarge’ O’Mara, the eccentric who resembles a cowboy for no apparent reason (Robert Patrick), the one with the moral objection, and Michael Pena’s…wait, what is he doing there? Despite such wisecracks, one of the film’s best-hit emotional beats concerns the relationship between cowboy gunman Max and Pena’s Officer Ramirez, who turns out to be his protégé in gun-toting sleight of hand.

Unfortunately even the depiction of true crime-lord Micky Cohen (a scary Sean Penn obscured by prosthetics) is rather two-dimensional. It may just be the collection revision, but he seems to be Marlowe’s Tamburlaine with a lesser grasp on rhetoric. He’s characterised only by an evil bloodlust and a foul-mouth. How the film managed a 15 rating is beyond me.

O’Mara’s wife, although a more minor character, is much better written, and Mireille Enos gives a strong performance as the exasperated, ignored wife. The debate as to whether O’Mara is a decent husband could be just as controversial as the issue of whether he’s a hero or as villainous as his enemies. His determination in the ‘war’ against Cohen is rather heavy-handedly presented as an inability to move on from his experience of World War II.

More successful emotive drama is found in the exploration of cop Jerry Wooters’ (Ryan Gosling) conflict-of-interests relationship with Cohen’s squeeze Grace Faraday (Emma Stone). Although the relationship has been compared to the one they portrayed in 2011’s Crazy Stupid Love, there’s a lot more at stake here. The frantic final push to catch Cohen and save Grace from the worst sugar daddy of all time collapses from intense suspense to a frustratingly sudden and convenient conclusion. After so much bloodshed O’Mara’s carefree playfulness surely suggests a lack of moral feeling.

It’s worth sticking around for the credits to see some ‘40s style artwork, and if you’re left feeling you haven’t seen enough of the Gos in high-speed chases, look out for the upcoming The Place Beyond the Pines, in which he’ll play a motor cycle stunt driver, again faced with a moral dilemma.