Movies: Gangster Squad

It’s 1949 and Los Angeles is under the thumb of mobster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn). He’s running the town and police Sergeant John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) wants to stop him and restore the city to the paradise he believes it is.

Mobster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn, left) and Police Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) have a showdown in the park.
Photo: Wilson Webb/Warner Brothers Pictures

To get Cohen, O’Mara assembles a group of cops who are not the run-of-the-mill Joe Fridays. They — Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), Officers Navidad Ramirez (Michael Peña) and Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi) — are officers willing to think and act outside the box. They set out to get Cohen by destroying his businesses.

Now, as we look at it from a modern point of view. LA in 1949 was very stylish and colorful. The clothes were cool and people talked like their dialog had been written for pulp magazines. So, we’re not surprised when Sgt. Wooters spots a beautiful woman and asks, “Who’s the tomato?” It’s fun. The fact that said “tomato” is Grace Faraday (Emma Stone), Cohen’s main squeeze, only adds to the fun.

Director Ruben Fleischer has assembled an interesting cast. In addition to the leads, there are Nick Nolte as Police Commissioner Parker, Anthony Mackie as Officer Coleman Harris and terrific period production design by Maher Ahmad and costume design by Mary Zophres. Gangster Squad is fun to watch.

It would have even been fun to watch in black and white and more fun with Bogey and Cagney leading the cast. On the plus side, Penn and Brolin are fine and Emma Stone, in a dark wig, is lovely.

The movie, because of the time and place in which it’s set and the subject matter, however, invites comparison to Chinatown. And, on that basis it fails. As is popularly said nowadays, “it is what it is.” That’s all it is.