Gangster Squad (2012) – A Bit Gangster Squib

Synopsis: Los Angeles, 1949: A secret crew of police officers led by two determined sergeants work together in an effort to take down the ruthless mob king Mickey Cohen who runs the city.

My Take

I always imagined if I had a time machine and a heap of cash one era of time I would love to travel back to and immerse myself in would be late 40’s early 50’s LA. Post war affluency, the big studio contract stars holding their lavish parties in the Hills, sharp suits, Trilby hats, billowy dresses and seductive smoking in the coolest of cool jazz joints.

Evidently I had stared at one to many Norman Rockwells as my utopian ideal of the past was quickly shattered when I read 22.11.63 by Stephen King. In it the protagonist travels back to late 50’s early 60’s America in order to stop the assassination of Kennedy. He too, like I, had an idealistic view of the “good old days” before becoming quickly disillusioned when he was reminded of the institutional racism, bigotry, inequality and medicinal/technological disadvantages of the time. In both cases mine, and the fictional protagonist’s, flaws in our view of the past were the same; style over substance.

And it is this same flaw that haunts Gangster Squad from the get go…


First thing about Gangster Squad is it is God damn loud. If you’re going to see it in a cinema for any reason it should be sonic. Similarly it looks lovely. All those things I imagined I would love about the era, the suits with the carnations in the button hole, the dresses, the smoking, they were all there in lavish detail. But all the things I would hate about the time, the racism, the bigotry, the indifference to what we would today consider cruelty towards women and children, isn’t there. And there in lies the issue. For a film about the seediest of seedy underbellys, it never feels less than a glossy shiny tribute to great wardrobes. The great thing about Mad Men in contrast is it lets you fall in love with the style and beauty of the time but never lets you forget just how harsh it was at times if you weren’t the right colour, lacked a penis, or God forbid both.

If you took a movie about cops investigating serious crime in post war LA, with some boxing mixed in and a cast of very watchable actors, split it down the middle and sent the two halves to opposite ends of the spectrum you’d be left with two outcomes. At one end you’d have The Black Dahlia, a mess of a movie that is so covered in grime, cynicism and unintelligible story telling that it leaves you feeling drained. At the other you’d have Gangster Squad which places 2012 sensibilities in 1949 with a nice tidy ribbon. And in the perfect middle you’d have L.A. Confidential.

Thats not to say it isn’t entertaining at times. Even in less experienced hands than Ruben Fleischer’s it would be difficult to mis-direct such a stella cast. I will literally watch Ryan Gosling sit and open mail for 2 hours. I find him to be one of the most enigmatic screen presences working at the moment, even if he has stolen Clooney’s patented “look down, look up, shit eating smirk” move. And in fairness to him he did his best to add some depth to his two dimensional ladies man character.

Josh Brolin square jaws his way through as the equally underdeveloped, incorruptable Sgt O’Mara and never lets you feel like you don’t want to root for him. As the poster suggests he is as archetypal an all-American hero character as you will find this side of a 1950’s Boys Own comic book. When faced with a moment of conflict it would not have been out of place for him to say “I’m an American Sir, not an American’t”. If you cut him opn his organs would be made from recycled and pulped prints of the American Constitution. He really is the product of a writer taking 10 minutes to develop a character on a post-note.

Giovanni Ribisi is criminally underused as the token nerd and Michael Pena similary as one of the two token minorities, but all are still enigmatic when filling the screen. And it’s always nice to see T1000 grizzling his way around the joint.

On the flip side Emma Stone seems to pass the whole thing like a silent fart. Given how sizzling hot doiggidy hot I find her I was never once attracted to her. Not once. Not even a trouser grumble. In fact I found myself hoping she would be one of those surprise ‘early killings’ just to throw the audience a curve ball. No. She stayed until the bitter freakin’ end. Her performance made me want to go watch Easy A again, which is I think her best role to date and evidence of how charismatic, smart, sassy and sexy she can be when not purely playing token eye candy. Like a more sultry Ellen Paige. Similarly it is remarkable that in a film in which Nick Nolte seems to have been handed a card at the beginning that just says “grizzled”, Sean Penn manages to out “Nick Nolte” Nick Nolte. I can only imagine that he saved the production money on food budget having filled up so much on all the scenery he chewed. Again, that’s not to say his portrayal of Irish mob boss isn’t entertaining, but at time his prosthetics and histrionics make him feel like a left over from Dick Tracy, rather than a dramatic portrayal.

I can say hand on heart that I did laugh a lot, and at all the places I was supposed to laugh. There are some genuinely funny moments that are timed well and acted with an unusual amount of restraint given the fact the rest of the movie is dialled up to 12.  Similarly the action sequences, in particular the hand grenade car chase scene, feel genuinely adrenaline fuelled and have the requisite amount of comedy, peril and bad guys going splat. Ruben Fleischer has a track record for comedy and he knows how long to linger on a double take, or cut that cheesy one-liner. which is why I think he was such a weird choice for this and why it feels at times like it can’t seem to work out what it is. Not funny enough for a comedy, certainly not dramatic enough for a drama, but just enough of both with some action to keep the whole thing together.

Conclusion: It’s by no means the worst 1 hour 40 minutes you’ll spend at the cinema. There are enough laughs, bangs, crashes and Sean Penn rants to keep you amused. But if you want character development, conflict and an accurate portrayal of the LA of this era spend £3 and rent LA Confidential.

Verdict: 5/10


Taglines: No names. No badges. No mercy.

Director: Ruben Fleischer – best known for Shoving Buddies favourite Zombieland

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Josh Brolin, Sean Penn, Emma Stone, Michael Pena, Giovanni Ribisi, Robert Patrick, Anthony Mackie, Nick Nolte


  • The original trailer for this movie was pulled after the Aurora, Colorado Century 16 massacre due to a shot in which four gangsters fire machine guns through a projection screen into a crowded movie theater. Warner Bros. then ordered the film back into production for a reshoot of the scene, necessitating a rescheduling of the film’s release and rewrite of the script.
  • Ryan Gosling’s character makes a joke where he pretends that the only famous Mickey he has heard of is Mickey Mouse. As a child, Ryan Gosling starred in Mickey Mouse Club


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