Gangster Squad – Movie Review

Mickey Cohen was a bad apple, no doubt about it.  Growing up in a world of gangsters and criminals he was first arrested at age nine for running liquor and made no attempt for the next fifty odd years to become citizen of the year.  Cohen’s crimes escalated to include illegal gambling, numbers running, extortion and multiple murders in a few short years. 

He was a champion boxer and went west to train and play matches, but in fact, he was sent on orders of east coast mobsters to protect Bugsy Siegel.  He liked the wide open state of California with its movie and oil money, beautiful women and opportunities for a criminal start up.  He presented himself as the defacto leader of the west coast Jewish Mafia.  

Cohen’s rise to power made him a target for other mobsters keen on taking over his holdings which soon amounted to a criminal empire.  His house was a fortified mansion in one of Hollywood’s most exclusive neighborhoods, outfitted with modern surveillance gadgets, weaponry and lighting systems.

Sean Penn plays Cohen and he’s unrecognizable.  His face is deeply wrinkled and scarred, his arms and neck sinewy with nerves.  His expressionless face is creepy and anti-social.  He’s strong and explosive and middle aged backed by a lifetime of taking what he wanted.  Penn’s performance is chilling.

Gangster Squad is set in the late forties into the fifties.  The city’s top cop (Nick Nolte) has had enough of Cohen’s intimidation and unchecked violence.  He asks one of his toughest, Sgt. O’Mara (Josh Brolin) to put together a secret squad to wipe out Cohen and his empire. 

He picks people his wife trusts played by Giovanni Ribisi, Ryan Gosling, Anthony Mackie and Robert Patrick, and it’s time to go shark fishing.   The squad would not wear badges, they were off the books, and they could do whatever they felt like doing as long as they did the job.  

The job was not so easy to do because although the squad managed to wire Cohen’s home in a heart crunching sneak invasion, it wasn’t long before Cohen figured it out and went ballistic, vowing revenge and death to cops.

It’s an ensemble piece in which the actors share screen time so there isn’t a lot of room for characterization.  They do plenty with their limited time and we understand the types and their motivations for taking part in the secret campaign, thanks in part to their noir predecessors and supple work.   Gosling and Emma Stone who plays Cohen’s girlfriend, share a steamy love subplot that’s builds extra tension.

The events of Gangster Squad are reportedly fact based, even though secret gangster squads are not documented.  The film is extremely violent as one would expect, with plenty of gunfire, torture and loss of life.  It reflects a strange time in Los Angeles, a time of living noir, when the city was young and predators hovered, ready to carve it up.

The look of the film is stunning, the hushed colors of night broken by neon contrasting with the brilliant dazzle of fake looking daylight.   The art direction and wardrobe is luscious, all of it bathed in golden southern California light.  The city is beautiful.

The film isn’t meant to be a documentary, and it doesn’t pull its punches in terms of violence.  It is solidly entertaining and casts a spell taking us to a rich period in Los Angeles history.  

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35mm drama
Written by Will Beall, Paul Lieberman (book)
Directed by Ruben Fleischer
Opens:  January 11
Runtime: 113 minutes
MPAA: Rated R for strong violence and language
Country: USA
Language: English