Gangster Squad

Hollywood loves antiheroes these days.  Dark, brooding, and dangerous are all adjectives that lately describe the good guys in movies.  Questionable characters, dragged into action with murky motives, have gained popularity as movies keep pushing for “gritty” realism, wanting to be respected for acknowledging that life’s situations aren’t black and white.

Well, forget that for Gangster Squad.  This is a throwback movie both in era (it takes place in the 40’s and 50’s) and in style.  The good guys are noble, the villains are cruel, and you’re never confused about who to root for.  Gangster Squad is obviously about organized crime, although I can’t think of another mafia movie that takes place in Los Angeles, instead of the usual Mob stories in Chicago, Las Vegas, or New York.  That sets a slightly different tone from the start.  It’s actually based on a true story too.  I don’t pretend that this is a documentary, but the main plot actually happened.

Josh Brolin plays an honest cop, a WWII vet who still wants to do good now that the war is over.  He’s not afraid of anyone, and does whatever it takes to do the right thing, even if it crosses some sort of procedural line.  He has a family that he loves and just wants to make sure his hometown is a good place for them.  There is no “anti” in his hero.  Sean Penn plays Mickey Cohen, a ruthless upstart gangster, who learned his trade back East and decides to use his skills in the relatively open territory of LA, where the big crime families don’t have a strong foothold. He’s got no remorse and no morals.  There are no redeeming qualities in his villain.

The plot (without spoilers) centers on a group of good cops who need to take Cohen down before he takes over the city.  To do this, they might have to go outside the lines of the law.  I don’t think this contradicts my earlier statement about the purity of the heroes.  They have to go around the law because too many officers are paid off, and the law in this situation is red tape getting in the way of justice.  The titular Squad consists of Brolin, Robert Patrick, Anthony Mackie, Michael Pena, Giovanni Ribisi, and Ryan Gosling.  It’s a great cast, with each member being unique.  Several are WWII Vets, Pena and Mackie are dealing with race issues while still wanting to do the right thing, and Robert Patrick plays an awesome character–one of the last cowboys.  Gosling is the smooth talker and a magnet for Emma Stone, the only major female character in the movie (various wives aside).  He’s also the only one who really has any shades of gray–and they’re a very light gray.

So it’s a cop movie, a period movie, an action movie, and a bit of a mystery movie.  All the facets work well.  The pacing is excellent.  Compared to several of the holiday blockbusters that were close to 3 hours, this movie zips by.  The action is well done, and with a clear rooting interest, you are more invested in the outcome.  The outcome may not be in question, but it’s very satisfying when it gets there.

There are no glaring flaws, unless you consider the rather one-dimensional characters a problem.  As I stated, I thought it was refreshing to see a hero cop who’s just a good guy.  Period.  Soldier, family man, leader.  I want every policeman in America to be like this guy.  One of the car chases is a little hard to follow.  And Emma Stone, while looking great, doesn’t really have a lot to do (although her character is somewhat necessary to the plot).  Plus, there are several references to Los Angeles areas, including 2 lines that specifically refer to the city I live in that got huge laughs in my theater.

Go see this.  It’s definitely a crowd-pleaser, especially if you live in LA.  Enjoy a clear-cut hero and villain.  There will be conflicted characters on screen all year, but it’s nice to see a kind of Old Hollywood movie for a change.

Ryan S. Davis

I love board games, thrill rides and travel. I'm happy to watch and review all kinds of movies, from mainstream blockbusters to art house indies. As a Warner Bros. employee, I'm privileged with a glimpse of Hollywood many don't see, but my opinions here are my own and not representative of the company.

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