As the saying goes, “mob movies are always hot in Hollywood.” This Friday’s Gangster Squad proves to be no exception. Set in 1940s Los Angeles, the film centers on Mickey Cohen, an infamous mobster whose long and illicit career has not received as much attention in pop culture as figures such as Lucky Luciano or Al Capone.
Any crime dramedy these days seems bound to draw comparison to Tarantino’s films, and Gangster Squad‘s idiosyncratic style increases that prospect. The film opens with dark sepia-style lighting, and it wastes no time getting to the really dark and gruesome via a graphic slaying of a gangster who did wrong by Cohen. Lest you fear it’s all dark and squirmy, the next sequence brightens up across a Los Angeles landscape that nods to the era, including a shot of the Hollywood Hills sign when it was still “Hollywoodland.”
Ruben Fleischer, the director behind the quirky comedy-horror Zombieland, is responsible for this crew-of-misfits black comedy that pairs Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling as leading lovers for the second time, following their 2011 film Crazy, Stupid Love.
Fleischer largely succeeds in establishing his mixed cinematic style, which reflects his work in comedic television as well as his continued collaboration with a loyal editing team. He favors using any and every cinematic device he sees fit. Gangster Squad uses many effects and tricks seen in Zombieland—pause, interrupted sequence, montage, slow-motion and extreme close-ups—resulting in a novel submission to the genre whose eccentric visual direction complements the narrative of good-cops-doing-bad. My general criteria for genre-based films are that they manage to do something fresh while remaining true to the classics. Gangster Squad achieves both, and while it may or may not end up as anyone’s all-time favorite mafia flick, it’s certainly a fun addition.
The film plays with odd-couple pairings and an ensemble of “misfits” (their word in the script) reconciling their quirks and talents with each other. In this, it is reminiscent of another recent crime-comedy Seven Psychopaths, also set in LA.
The film’s central antagonist (Cohen) is played to perfection by Sean Penn, down to the way he sneers with the corners of his mouth. Penn is not exactly a dead ringer for the real Cohen, but he is convincing, unrelentingly evil, and absolutely delicious to hate. In a time where we’ve become accustomed to championing—or at least empathizing with—killers and mob bosses on the big and small screens (Sopranos, Scarface, The Godfather, Dexter, Seven Psychopaths, et al.), it’s kind of refreshing to see the reality of a cold-blooded, self-serving, illegal businessman and despise him without complication.
Another performance that will certainly draw attention is the primary female role, played by Emma Stone. Stone and Fleischer worked together in Zombieland, and fans of their work have been wondering if the characteristically gorgeous but goofy Stone could play the part of a sultry vixen. In the gritty world of Gangster Squad, Emma Stone is still Emma Stone, though slightly cooler and less adorkable. She fares well, though her signature goofiness still creeps through, and it seems that much of her range into the dark-side could be attributed to her lines and not necessarily how she plays them. Still, she’s magnetic, and I found myself waiting for her to show back up on the screen.
She and Ryan Gosling are as enjoyable to watch as they were in Crazy, Stupid Love, although their characters were better matched in that pairing. He shows his range once again, taking on projects that are as different as possible from whatever he last did. Sean Penn definitely delivered the most powerful performance, but John Papsidera did a fine job casting the ragtag group as an ensemble, and Gosling, Josh Brolin, Giovanni Ribisi and Mireille Enos (as Brolin’s wife, Connie O’Mara) all delivered.
The film doesn’t miss any major beats as it brings each thread of the story to a satisfying conclusion, but there are a few moments that could have been easily strengthened or developed. In one instance, one of Cohen’s major allies is flipped despite little motivation to do so. It doesn’t detract much, but in a film about a rebel group going to extreme lengths to do their job, it seems odd that no one making the film noticed and found a way to improve it. But that’s the difference between the movies and the reality. Or, in shorthand, “That’s Hollywood.”