The old TV shows Dragnet always ended with the narrator saying “the story you’ve just seen is true. The names were changed to protect the innocent.” When it comes to Gangster Squad, parts of the story are true. There really was a Gangster Squad in Los Angeles in the late 1940s, there really was a mobster named Mickey Cohen, and there were LAPD sergeants named Jack O’Mara and Jerry Wooters.
Sean Penn plays Mickey Cohen, a former professional boxer who became a mob enforcer and who is now trying to dominate the crime scene in L.A. One of the most famous LAPD police chiefs ever, Bill Parker (Nick Nolte, playing the man for whom the LAPD headquarters is named) decides Cohen can’t be allowed to continue in the direction he is going. He calls in Sergeant O’Mara (Josh Brolin) and tells him to “wage war” on Cohen and his goons. O’Mara assembles a group consisting of Wooters (Ryan Gosling), “Coleman Harris” (Anthony Mackie), “Conway Keeler” (Giovanni Ribisi), “Navidad Ramirez” (Michael Pena) and “Max “Flea” Kennard” (Robert Patrick). They all agree to leave their badges at home and to do whatever it takes to put Cohen out of business.
Complicating matters is that Cohen’s girlfriend, “Grace Faraday” (Emma Stone), is also sleeping with Wooters and they both know that if Mickey ever finds out about their affair, he will “plant both of them”, just another noir metaphor for kill and bury.
Visually, Gangster Squad captures the look of 1949 Los Angeles, right down to the Hollywoodland sign that overlooked Southern California back then. The cars, the business signage, everything looks true to the time. The problem is there is nothing original here, and the other “gangster” films that director Ruben Fleischer and screenwriter Will Beall used as inspiration are honestly much better. There are echos of The Untouchables, L.A. Confidential and more and sadly, Gangster Squad suffers by comparison.
Worse yet, the boatload of talent assembled in the film’s cast don’t have a lot to do with the material at hand because the real stars of this film are action, violence, bullets and corpses. Sean Penn is one of the finest actors of his generation but here he’s over the top. In fact with one exception, the actors are solid, but not spectacular. The exception is Josh Brolin who is perfect as the taciturn but totally committed veteran of WWII, Jack O’Mara. He loves his wife Connie (Mireille Enos) deeply and wants nothing more than to spend his off-hours with her. But his war experiences have left him as a man who needs to learn how to live in a world free from combat. It’s a fine performance. It’s what brings this from a rating of two stubs up to three.