Some years ago I learned 1930s and ’40s era gangsters learned to talk “gangster” from the motion pictures. James Cagney probably had more to do with coining gangster lingo and slang than John Dillinger, Machine Gun Kelly, and Al Capone combined. Gangster Squad gets the clothes right, does a decent job with 1949 era Los Angeles, but is noticeably weak in the dialogue department. A standard pulp fiction picture from the 40s would talk circles around these mugs.
Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) is becoming the biggest wise guy in Los Angeles. He came out west as part of the Chicago mafia but is now going into business for himself and kicking out the old crew. Mickey used to be a professional boxer and has the battered and scarred face to prove it. He owns nightclubs, paints stores, a haberdashery, and every other venture in between. He also runs prostitution houses, gambling rings, and has a major hand in the drug trade. There are entire neighborhoods where the corrupt LA cops do not dare stray because “that is Mickey Cohen territory.”
Chief of Police Parker (Nike Nolte), unlike his legal and political peers, is not on the take though. He growls at the direction his city is headed and enlists one of the only honest cops in the whole department, Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), to lead an undercover task force solely focused on shutting down Cohen’s illegal operations. In true “let’s get a team together” montage, O’Mara cobbles together a ragtag crew of cops each with their own one-dimensional skill. Officer Kennard (Robert Patrick) is a crack shot, Officer Harris (Anthony Mackie) is the black guy who knows everyone in the Central District, Officer Ramirez (Michael Pena) is the Mexican guy, Officer Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi) is the gadget guy, and Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) is the wise-cracking sidekick who launches his own vendetta at Cohen after his favorite shoeshine boy is accidentally shot in a gang shootout.
Conveniently, Jerry’s current piece on the side is Grace Faraday (Emma Stone). Grace just happens to be Mickey’s girl too. They have nothing in common but her presence is explained away as she is Mickey’s protocol tutor; she corrects him when he uses the wrong fork at dinner. This motley crew of police department underlings are probably the most racially diverse partners ever seen in 1949 as well. Nobody mentions it or takes a second look to notice how culturally assorted their little squad is. This is good for 2013 audiences, but as for 1949 authenticity, not so much. The rest of Gangster Squad is quite predictable.
There are shootouts, fist fights, montages of the gangster squad cleaning up the streets and Mickey Cohen ranting and raving why none of his henchmen can stop these guys. Mickey’s make-up and over the top cartoonishness would not be out of place if he were one of Big Boy Caprice’s boys in “Dick Tracy.” For an R-rated film, the violence is mostly limited to bloody fists and bullet sprays from tommy guns. I would love to see Quentin Tarantino take on a 1940s era gangster film; his mastery with violent scenes would be more than welcome here. Director Ruben Fleischer (“Zombieland“) takes a step backwards with Gangster Squad. The casting is first rate, with the exception of Emma Stone, so perhaps the languid feeling the audience leaves with is from screenwriter Will Beall. This is Beall’s first feature film credit and he based the story off of Paul Lieberman’s book of the same name.
Back to Emma Stone. Grace Faraday is a femme fatale, the boss’s girl, a girl you know not to touch. She needs a deeper voice like Lauren Bacall, wit and sex appeal like Barbara Stanwyck, and overall glamor like Lana Turner. Emma Stone is becoming one of Hollywood’s “it” girls, but she is too young and too slight to play a real smoldering woman who make men do stupid things. Scarlett Johansson would make a more convincing dangerous lady to sidle up to in a smoke-filled bar. As for her paramour, Ryan Gosling chose to play Jerry with a voice a half octave or so higher than his normal voice. From the preview, I thought this would be ridiculous; however, Gosling proves once again he knows what he’s doing. Jerry works perfectly with a voice which does not seem quite right because Jerry himself is not quite right, there is something a bit off about him.
In the right hands, there is still a good market and appreciative audiences for re-imagined wise guy movies with their slick talk, slick hair, and impeccable suits. Unfortunately, for Gangster Squad the script is flat, the direction uninspired, and the special effects are too gimmicky for the time its takes place in. I’ll just have to wait for Quentin, I suppose.