A classic story of good vs. evil, the star of the movie is Josh Brolin who plays a straight-arrow sergeant whose aim is to take down the Brooklyn-born mob king Mickey Cohen.
A jazzed-up version of the old-fashioned cops-and-robbers movie, the results are watchable enough, but what’s especially impressive is the movie’s adept use of Los Angeles locations, and period details.
Based on former Los Angeles Times writer/editor Paul Lieberman’s book, Gangster Squad, it’s a simple story of events surrounding the LAPD’s attempt to preserve the law in Los Angeles. The movie details Lieberman’s account of “the battle for Los Angeles” that took place between the police and Cohen’s crew from the mid-1940s all through the `50s.
Somewhat similar to Brian De Palma’s “The Untouchables,” a movie which detailed the quest to capture Al Capone, the story is told in an unhurried fashion. The year is 1949 and Cohen (Sean Penn) is the leader of all illegal activity in Los Angeles and a rising force in the local criminal underworld. In a quest to bust up Cohen’s rackets, a secret crew of LAPD outsiders led by Sgt. John O’Mara (Brolin) set up the Gangster Squad – a posse of cops operating as judge, jury, and executioners who come together to try to tear Cohen’s world apart.
With great costumes, great sets and big guns and a few shots that absolutely capture that era, it follows the bunch of officers that include a knife-throwing cop (Anthony Mackie), an electronics expert (Giovanni Ribisi), a rifle expert (Robert Patrick) and his rookie partner (Michael Peña).
Under the direction of Ruben Fleischer, (“Zombieland”) it’s another approach to the gangster genre and was originally slated to open in September 2012, but was delayed after the movie-theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado occurred and made a scene of gunfire in Grauman’s Chinese theater seem inappropriate.
Marginally entertaining, “Gangster Squad’s” saving grace hinges entirely on its cinematography, production design and costumes and what’s good about the movie is the physical production itself. Filmed in and around Los Angeles, it utilizes a number of historic locations and transforms others to recreate memorable hotspots popular during the 1940’s. There’s a lot of nice touches like the use of the city’s most iconic site Union Station and Slapsy Maxie’s, the nightclub where Cohen spends his evenings dining with the public officials he keeps in his pocket, just as the real Cohen did.
The big disappointment is Penn who delivers a theatrical style of acting with flailing arms and comes onscreen with great dramatic and musical flourish. There isn’t a glimmer of a notion of what makes Cohen, who was such an organizational genius tick, and Penn lacks the physical traits of the character.