This film is lucky for having Dion Beebe bring his lush, otherworldly lenses to the set with him. What Gangster Squad's screenplay lacks in depth, the visuals make up for in tone. The film is lucky for having Sean Penn channel the greatest 1930s/40s heavies from films before they were categorized as noir but simply were. The film is lucky Emma Stone actually pans out as the femme fatale and wasn't a monumental casting mistake.
Gangster Squad is lucky for hiring such well liked vet-actors (such as Michael Pena, Robert Patrick, Giovanni Ribisi, et al) for filling in the roles of our thinly drawn heroes since their presence and personalities alone give more then the script gives. The film is lucky for the gorgeous costume design, well constructed sets and the lack of overused CGI.
Gangster Squad is lucky is doesn't play too serious, never undermining its core audience (shoot 'em up fans) with labyrinthine plots and complex story lines. On that note, however, the film is lucky it doesn't pull it's punches: the violence is brutal and bloody, the language is uncomfortable and biting and there is no comedic sidekick to soften things up. If anything, Gangster Squad shows that there are consequences for the actions of our heroes ... even if history isn't exactly adhered to.
I could go on but I think my point is clear: a lot of things went right in this production to make it acceptable for viewing (hell, even entertaining). That said, despite all the lucky things that happened, Gangster Squad got dumped in theaters in January which shows you that luck did not prevail when it came to things like a meaningful script. In the end, Gangster Squad is a bad (bad, bad, baaaaaaaaaad) story and that makes almost everything else seem to be done in vain.
When you play fast and loose with history, you set up certain expectations. In Gangster Squad's case, we want to see Mickey Cohen die, hopefully with a bullet going through his brain. The movie opens in 1949 so unless Mickey Cohen's natural causes death in the late 1970s became personified as a gigantic assault rifle happening to be shot by Josh Brolin ... then you ain't gettin' absolution sir!
Yes, Gangster Squad goes with the basic good vs. evil formula, ignoring the noir tradition of having flawed characters with moral ambiguities afoot and going with knights in white whose only problem is caring too much about justice vs. Mickey Cohen and his rape obsessed, blood thirsty goons who seem to go around doing whatever the hell they want whenever they want.
*this clip is actually edited down. Brolin punches the dude on the face at least six more times and palm chops the dude in the nose on the wall a few more times then shown. The violence in this is almost impossible to edit around!
Reality is not really Gangster Squad's strong suit and that is fine since the movie never promises (or aspires) to be anything but a good guy vs. bad guy shoot 'em up. Naturally there is something cool about all this, at least for guys. Who doesn't love a great cops and robbers extravaganza? And mindless bloodshed is Gangster Squad's strong suit and it doesn't disappoint.
The movie opens with a real cracker of a death scene in which Mickey Cohen executes a former ally by tying his arms up to a car facing one way and his legs to a car facing the opposite way. He says 'go' and you can imagine what happens. It sets the tone ... for only two minutes later, Josh Brolin is rolling into a Cohen prostitution/rape house and dispatching enemies with firm palms to the nose. He even disarms a man by chopping his hand off with an elevator and a fast approaching floor.
The next 110 minutes is filled with minor exposition and lots and lots and lots of shooting. Between shoe shine boys being popped and seeing pregnant women get shot at we do get Emma Stone side boob and random scenes of our fateful Gangster Squad bonding over drinks and shooting practice.
The benefit is all of this stuff happens so fast that you don't really think about the by-the-numbers entertainment you are getting because the carnage and bloodletting is so well put together and edited (coupled with the lush cinematography mentioned before). However, Gangster Squad's ending can only disappoint. Because, like I said, you can't really get closure here. Gangster Squad isn't brave enough to be a revisionist piece ... it is 'inspired' by a true story.
So, in the end, you have to find a way to let Mickey Cohen live despite the fact that he blatantly tries to murder an assload of cops and their families throughout the whole film (the real Mickey Cohen was a little more subtle ... he wouldn't buy out a hotel and send all his men out to murder every cop in town and then participate in his own shout out with said cops before going mano y mano in a boxing match with Josh Brolin).
You have to keep in mind that Mickey Cohen only ever got popped for tax evasion charges and while he did technically own the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department, he didn't own the city police (the LAPD) and openly trying to murder them would get him in the slammer a lot quicker (if not in a coffin).
Gangster Squad is kind of an anti-noir and kind of the last film you want to watch right after L.A. Confidential. What we saw as flawed characters, victims to temptation, finding truth and justice through conflict with the powers that abuse all they have (in L.A. Confidential) is totally switched here in Gangster Squad. Though Giovanni Ribisi mentions for twelve seconds that the Gangster Squad's methods are no better then Mickey Cohen's (though based on what we see, this seems like madness to think so), the movie, for the most part, says that justice can be attained by any means necessary and the only consequences are to the bad guys. No one in the Gangster Squad suffers with inner demons or temptation ... they just go through an obstacle course of gun play to achieve their goals. That to me isn't really tension but backyard play stuff ... fun, but hollow.
*the silly end of the film. When you can't change history, just beat the snuff out of it and hope no one notices!
Almost in response to this, they did try to make Mickey Cohen a complex character for five minutes (by introducing his girlfriend, Stone, who is his etiquette coach) before abandoning it and having Sean Penn snarl and maim anyone in any scene he is in. Seriously, with the exception of the end scene, Penn pretty much comes into a room, smiles, murders someone, screams and leaves. The action shoot 'em up needs a monster to root against ... but that is sort of against the whole 'inspired by a true story' part that is so boldly printed on the poster (Cohen was a media darling up to his death in the '70s and considered almost a comedian, doing his ugly work behind the scenes; how the hell do you think the fuzz could never peg him for anything other then taxes???)
Gangster Squad is all about expectations. If you are going in for fun and blood ... this is your movie. If you want something historical, thought provoking or moving: look elsewhere.