Gangster Squad

Director: Ruben Fleischer
Starring: Josh Brolin, Sean Penn, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Nick Nolte, Michael Pena, Giovanni Ribisi.
Distributor: Roadshow Films
Runtime: 110 mins. Reviewed in Jan 2013
| JustWatch |
Rating notes: strong violence and strong coarse language

At the end of this film, police officer John O’Mara reminds the audience that the Mob has never had a hold in Los Angeles and that he and like-minded and like-actioned policed contributed to this.

Films about American gangsters continue to be popular. This one is set in Los Angeles 1949 and overlaps in time with the classic LA Confidential. Both show the career of Mickey Cohen who dreamed of being something like the Little Caesar of LA.

And the gangster squad? They are a special and secret group of Los Angeles police who are recruited by the city’s chief (Nick Nolte, burly and husky as ever) to wage guerilla warfare against Cohen, his gang and his drug and prostitution establishments to put him out of business. They are to destroy the business so that no other mob will take it over.

The centre of the squad is returned war veteran, John O’Mara. He is played by Josh Brolin whose star has been in the ascendant since 2007 and No Country for Old Men (W, Men in Black 3). He is square-jawed (something of a ringer for Dick Tracy), tough, more brawn than brains but presented as the heroic American cop full of righteousness. He recruits, with the help of his pregnant wife who wants a strong team to support (and protect) her husband, are a motley lot: a determined black cop (Anthony Mackie), a veteran sharpshooter (Robert Patrick) and his partner (Michael Pena who appeared in End of Watch), an intelligence officer (Giovanni Ribisi). They are joined by O’Mara’s friend, Jerry (Ryan Gosling), who is in couldn’t-care-less, drinking mode since returning from the war, starts a liaison with Cohen’s mistress, Grace (Emma Stone), but, disgusted at the shooting of his shoe-shine friend, joins the squad.

But, it is Sean Penn as Mickey Cohen who is mesmerising. For more than twenty years, Penn has been chameleon-like in immersing himself in his roles, creating a wide range of characters (in recent years, Milk, This Must be the Place, quite diverse roles). At the opening, he is vicious, ruthlessly cruel in torturing and killing both rivals and incompetent aides. As the film progresses, he shows no redeeming features. He is vicious.

The film has several set pieces as the squad attack Cohen, a raid on a casino which is rash and ill-planned, bugging his house, chasing a heroin haul from Burbank airport into the desert, a raid on a plusher casino and burning the cash.

The film also shows the bonding in the squad, their vulnerability, their determination to arrest Cohen which leads to a final shootout (guns galore and high body count) and a fist fight between John and Cohen.

The film is not for the squeamish, especially in the cruel Cohen sequences. It is a reminder, as are so many of the police films, that criminals have no scruples, that somebody must confront them while maintaining their own human decency. Not an easy thing at all.

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