If Jack Webb were alive today, it would be interesting to see his reaction to movies that have come out in the last couple of decades, like “L.A. Confidential,” “The Black Dahlia” and “Training Day,” that portray the Los Angeles Police Department in less than flattering ways. These movies are not the gentle productions like Webb’s “Dragnet” and “Adam-12” that presented L.A. police officers and detectives as hard-working, diligent and honest men.
Well, he might have had trouble at first reconciling the uncompromising men that make up “Gangster Squad,” but he might have warmed up to them later.
“Gangster Squad,” based upon a book by Paul Lieberman, adapted for the screen by Will Beall and directed by Ruben Fleischer (“Zombieland”), is a Western, but based in L.A. in the late 1940s. It’s a simple good guys vs. bad guys story that looks very film noir but explodes with violence that can be over the top.
It also boasts an impressive cast, featuring Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Nick Nolte and Sean Penn.
In the late 1940s, Mickey Cohen (Penn, hamming it up) owns just about every illegal but thriving enterprise in the City of Angels, plus a substantial investment in the right people within the law enforcement/justice empire — essentially giving him endless access to rake in the big bucks.
Chief Parker (Nolte), fed up with the futility of having his honest cops arresting Cohen employees only to have them sprung by bought-and-paid-for judges, decides it is time to get serious. So he recruits Sgt. John O’Mara (Brolin), a super tough WWII veteran who does not hesitate to mix it up with the criminal elements, getting bloodied in the process — but you should see other guys. Parker does not hold back. He tells O’Mara to do whatever is necessary to bring down Cohen’s operations — even if the actions are illegal.
O’Mara, aided by his wife Connie (Mireille Enos) — a welcome deviation from the usual weepy cop’s wife seen in movies — selects a few officers who might fit the bill of this group that will be doing things not by the book.
They include Officer Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie), a beat cop tired of all the drugs infested within the black community; Officer Max Kennard (Robert Patrick), a throwback to the old lawmen who drew guns from holsters; Officer Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi) a first-generation electronics nerd; and Officer Navidad Ramirez (Michael Pena), who although not recruited but as a tag-along of Kennard eventually wins over O’Mara.
Meanwhile, O’Mara also tries to secure the services of Det. Jerry Wooters (Gosling), a gifted detective who is just going through the motions and is not interested in O’Mara’s plans, until a tragedy that hits home inspires him to join the squad.
As sometimes happens, the squad blunders early in the game, with O’Mara and Harris being jailed in Burbank, where the entire police department seems to be on the Cohen payroll. The squad pulls off a breakout in a comically nearly-goofed up operation.
But eventually the squad starts making an impact on Cohen’s interests, and the gangster king, as portrayed by Penn, fumes, with veins bulging, and blows up. The Cohen in this movie is a caricature of the totally evil, greedy bad guy. If you work for Cohen and make a mistake, you do not get a write-up — you get dead.
As usual in these intense match-ups of good vs. evil, the ante is increased. Nice people will die along with the not-so-nice. Gosling’s Wooters falls in love with one of Cohen’s ladies, an “etiquette” adviser named Grace Faraday (Emma Stone), ratcheting up the risks not only for the cop but for the lady. This romance also sets up one of those silly, cliched exchanges — Wooters: “Don’t go”; Grace: “Don’t let me.”
Brolin delivers the right dose of stoicism for O’Mara, a former soldier now fighting a war in his own city. He sets aside any conflicts he may have regarding the tactics of his squad despite butting heads with a couple of the men, Wooters and Keeler specifically, who are the voices of conscience.
“Gangster Squad” is not meant to be a deep study in characterization, nor an analysis of the pros and cons of the ends justify the means. It is a fast-paced, action-packed shoot-’em-up, with a few blow-’em-up scenarios thrown in — and all with the glamorous backdrop of Los Angeles.