From the opening scene of “Gangster Squad,” it became abundantly clear to me that I was watching a comic book movie. Though the film is based on a book (without pictures) about the 1949 real-life take-down of Los Angeles mob boss Mickey Cohen, there is very little realism in it. Maybe it’s Sean Penn’s prosthetically villainous face or his over-the-top punishments for double crossers. Such things are not often seen outside of a Garth Ennis graphic novel. Had Director Ruben Fleischer (“Zombieland”) gone for straight drama, “Gangster Squad” would have been a disaster. Fortunately, everyone involved was on the same page and that page is as colorful as they come.
“Gangster Squad” takes place in a post-war Los Angeles, where boxer-turned-mob boss, Mickey Cohen is on the verge of running the whole goddamn town. Since Cohen has already bought off most of the LAPD, Chief of Police, “Whiskey” Bill Parker (Nick Nolte) enlists chaotic good Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) to put together a clandestine squad of like-minded cops. A Gangster Squad, if you will.
With the help of his reluctant, but resigned, wife, O’Mara assembles his A-Team: Jerry (Ryan Gosling), a fellow war vet, is the Face. Harris (Anthony Mackie) is the snarky loose cannon. Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi) is the wireman. He also throws in a couple of Young Guns for good measure in the form of a Wild West holdover (Robert Patrick) and is his rookie sidekick (Michael Peña). As the leader, O’Mara embodies the eloquence and fashion sense of Dick Tracy combined with the single-minded brutality and PTSD of the Punisher. His post-war life isn’t filled with tragedy, but you wouldn’t know it by the way he throws himself into fighting bad guys. His pregnant wife doesn’t like it, but she seems to understand that she married a full-time hero, even as she’s asking him to stay out of trouble.
Meanwhile, Jerry can’t help but court trouble in the form of Gracie (Emma Stone), Cohen’s reluctant lady friend. Their attraction is instantaneous and insurmountable. Their affair might seem like a frivolous risk, but have you seen Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone? You’d be crazy not to jump into bed with either one of them. Besides, the two actors have such chemistry that they inject their tryst with an air of genuine emotion.
The film’s biggest misstep was casting Sean Penn in a role that clearly should have gone to outrageous villain master Gary Oldman. There isn’t a moment he’s on screen that I’m not keenly aware that I’m watching Sean Penn. Everyone is wearing a costume, but Penn is the only one who seems like he’s playing dress-up.
But even Penn pulls off some pretty cool lines. In general, the repartee is as stylized as can be. Nearly every word uttered by a character is a period colloquialism or a one-liner. But that’s what you expect from a world with a fedora on every head, a smoke in every mouth and a flask in every pocket.
The Gangster Squad takes the best-dressed award; managing to look sharp no matter how much trouble they’re in. These men wear the uniform of the 40s Supercop. That’s because they are superheroes. There is a hailstorm of bullets every five minutes, but they always manage to stay dry. They survive an extremely reckless old timey car chase and even a couple of explosions.
In light of recent tragedies, there has been a lot of talk about gun violence in entertainment. “Gangster Squad” may experience a backlash despite deleting a shoot-out scene in a movie theater. There was heavy security at our screening, and they clearly weren’t looking for cell phones. But if you’re the sort of person who can’t tell the difference between real life violence and a cops-and-robbers fantasy world, you shouldn’t be watching anything but documentaries. The Los Angeles of “Gangster Squad” looks absolutely nothing like any city in modern, mass-murderous times. Sometimes, the best way to deal with crippling tragedy is to sublimate it into something fun. It’s meant to be a little shocking, in a cartoonish sort of way. The title alone is a tip-off. Nobody here is deluding themselves about what sort of film they’re in. Sometimes, even stellar actors want to take a break from the emotionally draining Oscar bait and make a bit of fluff. Why let Jason Statham have all the fun?