I’m a sucker for the 1940s in any form. It’s a decade detached from any other point in time. When you think of World War 2, which lasted up to 1945, it’s separated in your mind from the decade in the United States because it took place on the other side of the world. The Cold War, which effectively started immediately after WW2, doesn’t usually take place in film or television until the 50s and beyond when everything got kicked into high gear and nuclear holocaust was imminent at any moment. But the 40s are in this nice little bubble containing detectives, gangsters, and swinging nightclubs. Trench coats and fedoras, short stubby ties and tommy guns everywhere. Also xenophobia, but nobody likes to talk about that.
Anyhoo, Josh Brolin is John O’Mara, Irish cop in Los Angeles. Honor bound and duty driven, he’s an honest cop who doesn’t play by the rules, getting results and pissing off the top brass on every totem pole for cutting into their profits and poking a rather ferocious hyena with a stick. That would be mob boss Mickey Cohen. He’s Al Capone without all the goodwill. He owns Los Angeles in everything but name and he’s looking to expand. That means blood is going to flow in the streets. If Cohen owns the system, the only way to beat him is to leave it behind. O’Mara is tasked with putting together a small group of honest cops to wage their own war on the gangsters running rampant in the city, dismantling their operations before his stranglehold on Los Angeles gets too strong.
This movie looks really good, but then I’m a little biased in that regard. The actors are all competent in their roles, and… Okay, up front with you for a minute. I’m a little negative in my criticism of the movies that come out on HBO whenever I get the chance to review them. Sometimes they are genuinely bad movies that deserve all the scorn I direct at them. Other times it’s entirely possible I’m a little harsh. Either way, for all the reviews I do I don’t get the chance to be all that positive. I wish I could be, because who wants to watch a movie they think isn’t that good? Here, I’m going to be negative because “Gangster Squad” isn’t that good of a movie, which is not only incredibly disappointing to me for loving the period it’s set in, but also because of just how good it could have been even as a straight formula detective film because of the period it’s set in. To paraphrase Anton Ego (The critic from “Ratatouille”), negative criticism can be more fun to read and write than positive. However, judgment doesn’t make anything more or less meaningful than it is to anyone who feels differently. It’s up to you what to make of a movie. I only offer up my opinion to make sure you can make an informed decision for the investment of round-about two hours of your life sitting in one place. That out of the way? Okee dokee then.
It’s a symptom of the overarching problem. This movie is criminally underwritten. The characters are so two dimensional that all you have to push you along is the expectation that Mickey Cohen will eventually get what’s coming to him and that isn’t a whole lot of motivation on its own. Considering the talent on board for this movie, cardboard cutout pastiches of the traditional cops and robbers was the last thing I was expecting with the only standout being Sean Penn who carries along a vicious intensity that should belong in a better movie for a better character. Despite being detectives, there’s hardly any detective work in this movie. It all boils down to finding out where illicit operations are taking place, and torching them before they can do more damage. Which sounds like it would take some real detecting, but you’d be surprised. Everyone is introduced knowing all their contacts; everything is laid out in a nice neat row like dominoes to be tumbled. Dominoes are fun if they go somewhere interesting with twists and turns along the way. Unfortunately, none of that’s here. For a movie about cops that go renegade, everything is really by the book.
What’s most easily realized is that “Gangster Squad” is really violent. Like, really and bizarrely violent. Of course in a movie like this you expect a ton of people to get shot up, but here it’s farcical. The action is incredibly forced to drum up suspense and mask the fact that these detectives aren’t actually detecting anything.
The great actors for underwritten characters, the atmosphere of a Noir style 1940s Los Angeles, and the ultra-violence of all the action set pieces clash because of how unsuited each element is to the other. Noir is all about the slow build, the mystery behind a case and all the clues it takes to unravel it. The action feels like it would be better suited in a Jason Statham movie. The development of the characters feels like it would be better suited as a Jason Statham movie. Why wasn’t this a Jason Statham movie?
If you love the 40s as an aesthetic this movie is definitely worth watching because it’s beautiful for it. For someone who wants something a bit more character driven or substantial, I’d be more inclined to give this a pass.