Problems of pace and plot mar ‘Gangster Squad’

By Christopher K. Conner

Set in the Los Angeles of 1949, “Gangster Squad” casts Josh Brolin as Sgt. John O’Mara, an increasingly hard to find honest cop in an increasingly corrupt city. O’Mara made it home from the war, but his sense of honor and justice are making it difficult for him to accept the growing influence of Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), the particularly violent mob boss that has laid claim to Los Angeles. Cohen has a judge in his pocket, and no one will testify against him, so he is nearly untouchable.

After seeing several of Cohen’s men freed by the corrupt Judge Carter, O’Mara gets called into the office of Chief Parker (Nick Nolte). The Chief of Police of Los Angeles has managed to stay honest. He asks O’Mara to form a squad to fight a guerrilla war against Mickey Cohen. He doesn’t want Cohen killed because the power vacuum would just be filled with another mobster. Instead he wants Cohen run out of town so no one else will want to go into Los Angeles.

O’Mara agrees, but his wife Connie (Mirielle Enos) fears that the job is too dangerous. She is carrying their first child and fears losing her husband. Still, she knows that her husband’s sense of duty won’t let him turn his back on the Chief’s request.

Pouring over files of perspective squad members, Connie remarks that all of these candidates are too good. They are all likely to be promoted or make their way to bigger things. She is sure that Cohen would have bought some of them off already, investing in the future. Connie suggests choosing misfits that wouldn’t be worth the investment.

Eventually agreeing, Sgt. O’Mara picks four men and eventually ends up with five. First he approaches Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling). Wooters spends a lot of time in one of Cohen’s clubs and has mostly given up on making a difference. He refuses the invitation, but reconsiders when one of Cohen’s hits kills an innocent shoeshine boy.

O’Mara brings in officer Max Kennard (Robert Patrick). Kennard is a gunfighter as much as a law man, but his skills with a revolver make him an invaluable asset if guns come out. Kennard’s sidekick officer Navidad Ramirez (Michael Pena) joins the group somewhat by accident.

Another member is Officer Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie), beat cop that knows his way around the seedier side of Cohen’s drug trade. Lastly, there is Officer Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi). He is a tinkerer that knows how to tap phone lines and deal with electronics.

The six of them start off with a botched raid on a Cohen casino. Two of them get captured by the local sheriff and have to be rescued before Cohen’s men come to make an example of them.

At the same time, Mickey Cohen is hatching a plan to pull all books bets west of Chicago through his operation.  The sheer amount of power and money to be gained gives O’Mara’s squad a deadline. If Cohen’s plans come to fruition, he’ll be unstoppable in a number of months.

After their initial mistakes at the casino, the squad has a string of successes. They manage to destroy a number of Cohen’s operations and shipments of drugs. Initially Cohen believes the mob’s old guard are behind these hits, but it is only a matter of time before he learns that the squad are police, and that his girlfriend is cheating on him with Sgt. Wooters.

It has been a very long time since I’ve seen a gangster film. It seems to me that many of the usual suspects are there in “Gangster Squad.” For his part, Josh Brolin seems to do well in the past, and he is believable as Sgt. O’Mara. Likewise Robert Patrick does his role well and is hardly recognizable behind his horseshoe mustache. Sean Penn is a believable gangster boss and lends an intensity to his part of the picture.

Conversely, Ryan Gosling is flat. Even when he attempts to seem angry and violent he doesn’t stray too far from the expressionless delivery he uses to deliver pickup lines to Cohen’s girlfriend, Grace Faraday (Emma Stone).

“Gangster Squad” tends to switch between action that is too fast to take in and super slow motion that shows insignificant detail more than anything valuable or interesting. The ups and downs of pace and plot switch fast enough to give the audience a headache. The film does give the audience what was promised. There is action and bad guys verses not so bad guys, but beyond that “Gangster Squad” doesn’t provide much else.

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