Gangster Squad is Zombieland director Ruben Fleischer’s first full drama film and only his third feature, but it’s his best yet and ends up being one of the best gangster movies since L.A. Confidential, it’s thematic cousin. The film will go down with a lingering footnote in relation to the theater shooting in Aurora, CO last July. A crucial scene involving gangsters shooting a theater audience was removed and the context was rewritten and reshot out of respect to the horrific real life events. The film was also delayed from its original September release to this Friday. Despite the unexpected changes, the film works wonderfully.
The film, based on true events, begins in 1948 Los Angeles as gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) is establishing his foothold on the city and ultimately the West Coast. In the opening scene it’s quite clear that Cohen will hold nothing back and that he’s as ruthless as he is evil. In the next scene, we’re introduced to the heroic Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) as he single-handedly beats the hell out of some of Cohen’s lower level crooks. In an expertly-written (screenplay by Will Beall) introduction, we meet Sgt. Jerry Wooters (scene-stealing Ryan Gosling). Gosling absolutely steals the show in his portrayal of Wooters, which will come as no surprise to his fans of his recent roles (Drive). After struggles to stop Cohen, L.A.P.D. Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) instructs O’Mara to form a small squad to break Cohen’s operation apart.
The squad is a delight to watch in action, including the minor stumbles along the way. Fleischer has a keen eye for dramatic action and even manages to bring humorous, lighthearted moments from Beall’s script to life. The gangster squad is given plenty of time to develop the camaraderie and it’s clear they function at their best as a crew. Grace Faraday (Emma Stone) is a fresh take on the femme fatale and Stone is great in the role. It’s truly an ensemble film and the cast all deliver fantastic performances.
It’s a shorter film for its type (just shy of two hours), but it has a balanced flow. Fleischer inserts his Zombieland-esque slow-motion moments, but they’re used less for cool sequences and more to reinforce the view from the characters involved who are firing their guns rapid-fire, with time moving in apparent slow motion. It’s also a visually beautiful film and feels entirely authentic in its time period. It’s absolutely the late 40’s and the time period of L.A. matches up perfectly with other dramas of the same time. Overall, it’s a fun and exciting ride that really shines from the wonderful cast performances and turned out as a pleasant surprise.
Verdict: See in theaters