Gangster Squad opens on Sean Penn as real-life mobster Mickey Cohen, alone in a boxing ring. With a murderous glare and muscly arms more scary-looking than Madonna’s (incidentally, Penn’s ex-wife) he beats a punching bag violently whilst Josh Brolin details through voiceover how awesomely criminal Cohen is. Because director Ruben Fleischer doesn’t think this convinces us enough that Cohen is a cold-blooded psycho we cut to a remote location where he has a man chained to two cars pointing in opposite directions. Cohen instructs his goons to drive and audience cheers at the bloody violence thrown at them before they’ve even had a chance to sit down.
Mickey Cohen’s mafia occupation is a force that 1950s Hollywoodland can do without. That is why the incorruptible LAPD Chief recruits Josh Brolin’s equally honest Sgt. John O’Mara, a too-dedicated-to-the-force war veteran, to put together an unofficial squad to not just arrest Cohen but to destroy him.
Although some may find it odd that director Ruben Fleischer has seemingly taken a different route from his previous efforts Gangster Squad isn’t all that different from Zombieland and 30 Minutes Or Less. They all play host to dark humour, they all feature excessive violence, and they all play with their genres in ways that we don’t see often. It may play the plot straight but at the same time it is certainly no The Untouchables.
Without crossing into parody the squad O’Mara selects are pretty laughable. The gang are sincere in their efforts to take down Cohen’s operation but run into problems only Mr Bean could have if he ever challenged the mob. Needless to say, the misfits are incredibly hard to not love. Brolin is excellent as the group’s leader whose biggest flaw is his dedication to his Protect And Serve oath, constantly endangering himself, ticking his pregnant wife right off. As friend, Sgt. Jerry Wooter, Ryan Gosling somehow balances cutie-pie with hard-nosed cop brilliantly, falling in love with Cohen’s favourite “doll”, Grace, played by Emma Stone (which makes the pair two for two in playing love interests in a film they both star in – the other being Crazy Stupid Love). The rest of the gang consists of veteran character actor Robert Patrick whose skills put to shame loyal Michael Peña, doubter Anthony Mackie and the reserved but bold Giovanni Ribisi.
Sticking to cliché most of the way some may sneer at Gangster Squad, but it spreads itself equally between set pieces and long dialogues, making it easier watch than most crime films without becoming a soulless actioner.
Gangster Squad is one of those fine films that fills you with absurd excitement; the kind of film that has you imitating the characters for the rest of your evening. Just like I put my socks on my hands and pretend to shoot webs right after seeing any Spider-Man film, Gangster Squad had me adding “lickety split” to every sentence and firing an imaginary tommy gun everywhere as I travelled home. Les Miserables this weekend? Gangster Squad, lickety split!