Written by: Will Beall
Starring: Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Nick Nolte, Emma Stone, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi
The justice system in the United States works on the faith that all the public servants stand for the oaths they took and follow through with putting away menaces of a functioning society. A standard that some might say has never been met since the inception of said system, which leads us to Gangster Squad, where everyone is dirty and the only way purveyors of justice feel like they can complete their jobs comes from brute force.
Arriving in Los Angeles for what should be a cushier job, Sergeant John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) finds himself in a city informally run by a gangster, Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn). Seemingly alone in his quest for actual justice in the city, he gets commissioned by the police chief to form a group of officers willing to make a tangible difference in the city by not exactly following the law.
With this much talent available for this film, Gangster Squad arrived with plenty of potential to be a strong addition to the gangster genre that thrived in the 20th century. With its own history lesson to boot about the gangster world in Los Angeles, this could have been a game-changer. Well, it did not necessarily set the world alight or show the best this genre has to offer but overall, the amount of style it tries to imbue into this time period and strange performances allows me to have some semblance of appreciation for this feature.
This film takes place in Los Angeles where anyone who witnesses a crime committed by Cohen would refuse to take the stand for the fear of being murdered. On top of every judge, elected official, and most police officers on the payroll of the gangster, there is no sense of justice in the city. It just takes one man, who is unafraid to make himself a target. This sets up a violent and bloody battle for the soul of the city and not through pen and paper, but rather bullets. An interesting setup because these officers do not need to play by the rules, but the way it looks at police force through a 2021 lens does allow the perception to be iffy.
In his pursuit to assemble his team, O’Mara specifically looks for men who would not be paid off by Cohen but have the nerve to do some lawless things ironically in order to bring back a lawful society. This includes an officer who is known for using excessive force, including showing a scene where a criminal is selling heroin and the officer throws a knife at the dealer’s hand in order to cease the sale. I understand the excessive force when facing Cohen’s gang, but to attack a drug dealer in this manner contributes to the overall societal reeducation needed to comprehend what justifies force by the police. What happens to this drug dealer is beyond excessive and we’re meant to cheer it on because the officers are the good guys here.
Yes, the film has its struggle on a narrative level but you’ve gotta appreciate whatever in the world Ryan Gosling is doing with his voice. His own riff on a 1940s accent is just beyond hilarious and he brought his own comedy factor to a film lacking much substantive characterization. Unintentionally, Gangster Squad provided several hilarious sequences even with how serious it wants to take its entire story. Whether it be Gosling’s entire performance or Sean Penn yelling “Here comes Santy Claus,” how can you not just laugh and vibe with whatever was unintentionally put on screen?
In addition, I appreciate the visual style of this feature, which could have been fairly bland in the way it presents these circumstances. It feels very much its own take on how a 1940s Los Angeles would look. While there was perhaps a bit more slow-motion than was probably necessary, the film’s visual palette became its own character in the story in setting up the danger at each corner for these officers as Cohen has his fingers in far too many pies for them to feel any sense of safety. This visual palette looks at its best with Emma Stone in her portrayal of Grace Faraday. As dangerous as she is beautiful, Stone’s magnetism matches this character to allow her to stand out from the other characters even to the point where Gosling calls her a tomato. Yeah, the dialogue is not very good in this feature.
Filled with a host of problems, I find myself enjoying many aspects of Gangster Squad. Its self-seriousness becomes unintentionally hilarious in many moments and the sequences where O’Mara’s squad gets one over Cohen’s gang create some exhilarating moments. It bites off more than it can chew to tell this story, for sure, but if you can get over whatever voice Gosling is trying to do here you’ll find some things to enjoy about this deeply flawed film.