Film review | Gangster Squad – Pulpy tale of 1940s LA cops & crooks is luridly entertaining

Gangster Squad

Brash, loud and risibly anachronistic, Gangster Squad is flashier than a mobster’s suit, but if you’re not too fussy about finesse then Ruben Fleischer’s stylised crime film is a hugely entertaining cops-’n-crooks romp through a cartoon-like version of 1940s Los Angeles history.

Very loosely based on actual events (as recounted in Paul Lieberman’s eponymous book), the movie purports to tell how an elite band of two-fisted, straight-shooting cops fought Mob boss Mickey Cohen and his thugs for the soul of LA.

The group’s leader is Josh Brolin’s square-jawed police sergeant John O’Mara (a real person), who has returned from the war to find that Cohen and his cohorts have an increasing hold on the city. With the police, politicians and judges in Cohen’s pay or looking the other way, O’Mara takes an unofficial assignment from police chief ‘Whiskey Bill’ Parker (Nick Nolte playing another historical figure) to form the Gangster Squad: a secret crew of LAPD outsiders who will take the fight to the enemy – and go outside the law to achieve their ends.

Gangster Squad

His handpicked team, chosen with help from his shrewd, heavily pregnant wife (Mireille Enos), comprises Giovanni Ribisi’s tech whiz Conwell Keeler (also real), who becomes the group’s wiretapping expert and moral conscience; Robert Patrick’s Old West throwback, quick-drawing lawman Max Kennard; and Anthony Mackie’s knife-wielding patrolman Coleman Harris and Michael Peña’s rookie Navidad Ramirez, the squad’s black and Hispanic members and the script’s token nods to anachronistic diversity.

Last to join is Ryan Gosling’s slick, skirt-chaser Jerry Wooters (again, a real person), who initially takes a laid-back approach to LA’s crime wave, figuring that as the city is underwater then he’d rather reach for a bathing suit than a bucket. The fact that he’s sleeping on the sly with Cohen’s moll, Emma Stone’s slinky redheaded Grace Faraday, only adds to his scruples.

Gangster Squad - Ryan Gosling & Emma Stone

Yet the film isn’t really interested in scruples or moral complexity, notwithstanding Keeler’s occasional qualms about the squad’s extra-legal methods. This is very much a black-and-white fight between good and evil and we’re meant to be rooting for the cop vigilantes all the way.

The film’s Mickey Cohen, played with hammy relish by Sean Penn, is a figure of satanic evil from the start. The first time we see him he is standing over a rival Mafia boss, who has been chained between two revving cars, and then orders his minions to drive off.

Fleischer’s filmmaking is similarly unsubtle, full of showy tracking shots and flashy edits – such as the brazen cut between a Mob victim’s bloody head and a sizzling slab of barbecue meat. Yet it’s all done with such shameless verve that if you can stomach the violence and suspend disbelief in the movie’s lurid pulp-fiction version of real events then it’s ridiculously enjoyable.

In cinemas from Thursday 10th January.

Gangster Squad: The True Story of the Battle for Los Angeles by Paul Lieberman is published by PanMacmillan.

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