The Untouchables of L.A.
If Brian DePalma’s operatic 1987 cop drama The Untouchables and Warren Beatty’s colorful, machine gun-happy Dick Tracy from 1990 were to get together and have a cinematic offspring, it would probably look something like director Ruben Fleischer’s new cop flick Gangster Squad. Like the former, it’s the story of a determined cop and his equally devoted team as they attempt to bring down a mobster that has control of their city. Like the latter, it’s got lots and lots of machine gun fire. It’s definitely got the style to rival its cinematic parents, but the plot is a little too familiar for it to stand out on its own.
The crew referenced in the title is led by Sergeant John O’Mara, who came home from the war to continue fighting the battle as a member of the Los Angeles police department. His fearless determination to take down all of the bad guys in L.A. without worrying about such trivial things as their rights as citizens makes O’Mara the perfect fit for the new squad that the police Captain is putting together. He wants O’Mara to put together a team of good cops who aren’t afraid of leaving their badges at home and taking down boxer-turned-gangster Mickey Cohen’s organization at any cost.
The crew he puts together includes a 1940s version of a techie who comes up with the great idea of planting a bug inside of Cohen’s home which leads the gangster squad on a raid of multiple criminal organizations, crippling the gangster’s operation. Everything is going according to plan, but it is only a matter of time before Cohen finds the bug and uses it to his advantage. He’s also likely to figure out that his gang moll is slipping away a little too often to rendezvous with a member of the squad that is trying to take him down.
Gangster Squad is all spit and polish and visually is a treat for fans of the time period when all the men wore fedoras and all the dames wore long, form-fitting gowns. The action—and there’s a lot of it—is all very stylized, such as a dimly lit gunfight where the muzzle flashes result in brief, bright freeze frames or a tightly orchestrated and well choreographed raid of a nightclub set to the period music being performed on the stage by a Carmen Miranda-like performer. There’s also an exciting, slick-looking—albeit computer effects-aided—car chase as the crew looks to chase down one of Mickey’s drug shipments.
There is no attempt at subtlety or realism in this movie that starts off immediately with a scene of graphic brutality and that theory certainly extends to the performance of Sean Penn as Cohen. Just like Robert DeNiro as Al Capone in The Untouchables, Penn leaves any thought of nuance in his dressing room and just goes for it in full scenery-chewing mode. It’s a bit of a shock at first to see the two-time Oscar winner playing it so far over-the-top, but you quickly realize that it’s actually a perfect fit for the overall style of the film.
As for the substance, the screenplay pulls far too much of its plotlines from earlier, better films… namely, the two mentioned at the top of this article. The overall plot follows the formula established by The Untouchables so closely that at times it felt like a scene-by-scene remake. Both movies even culminate with a crucial gunfight that takes place on a staircase. As for Dick Tracy, the bugging of Cohen’s home and the subsequent raid montage were practically ripped straight from that movie, as was the fate of the characters involved when the bug was inevitably discovered.
The only real surprise in the plot for this writer was the way the movie ended, simply because it didn’t match up with my understanding of the history of Mickey Cohen’s reign in L.A.—an understanding, I grant you, that had mostly been formed by reading and watching L.A. Confidential. A little post-screening research revealed that the ending of Gangster Squad is in fact based on a real event, but the finality of this event as presented in the movie is a little misleading in terms of the actual history.
That’s something that I’m sure did not concern the filmmakers too much, however, as Gangster Squad is clearly intended to be pulp entertainment more so than a history lesson. On that level, it succeeds. Although it may not have the lasting power of its cinematic parents, Gangster Squad is an entertaining and cool-looking cops-and-robbers flick.
Gangster Squad is rated R for “strong violence and language.” The brutal opening scene alone is enough to warrant the R rating.
Courtesy of a local publicist, Jeff attended a promotional screening of Gangster Squad.