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'Gangster Squad': Law? What Law?

Sgt. John O'Mara (Josh Brolin) and Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) aim above and beyond the law in the noir tribute <em>Gangster Squad.</em>
Wilson Webb
Warner Bros. Studios
Sgt. John O'Mara (Josh Brolin) and Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) aim above and beyond the law in the noir tribute Gangster Squad.

Decked out in impeccable suits and a fedora so crisply brimmed it could cut through drywall, Josh Brolin stars in Gangster Squad as a square-jawed policeman of the first order, an Eliot Ness type who would sooner burn a pile of dirty money than pocket a single dollar.

In 1949 Los Angeles, Brolin's Sgt. John O'Mara has been trusted with the task of rebuffing the threat posed by Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), an East Coast gangster working quickly and ruthlessly to set up shop.

The trouble for the police is that not everyone is as incorruptible as Sgt. O'Mara: Cohen has connections inside the department and the courtroom that keep him well-protected, and fortresses of armed henchmen should some hero cop get any ideas besides.

The question posed by Gangster Squad is a troubling one: If a mass murderer like Cohen can't be brought to book by conventional means, are extralegal tactics necessary? And the answer suggested by the film is even more troubling: Yippee-ki-yay!

With all the current hand-wringing over the controversial tactics used to extract information in Zero Dark Thirty, it's ironic that a full-throated endorsement of by-any-means police conduct like Gangster Squad will likely skate by unnoticed. Granted, the two films aren't completely analogous — the fight over how the narrative of Osama bin Laden's killing will be understood is more urgent than the cartoonish pulp of a period shoot'em-up — but they both address similar questions about what it takes to bring a "Most Wanted" type to justice. Zero Dark Thirty stews in moral ambiguity; Gangster Squad barely gives it a second thought.

Femme fatale Grace Faraday (Emma Stone) comes between Wooters and his mob-boss target in Ruben Fleischer's lurid period pastiche.
Wilson Webb / Warner Bros. Studios
Warner Bros. Studios
Femme fatale Grace Faraday (Emma Stone) comes between Wooters and his mob-boss target in Ruben Fleischer's lurid period pastiche.

A slick, empty-headed exercise in Old Hollywood glamour and New Hollywood style — like a kids-playing-dress-up version of The UntouchablesGangster Squad pushes through mob-movie cliches with ultraviolent force. Director Ruben Fleischer, who made the entertaining horror-comedy Zombieland a few years ago, has the technical chops to put his action sequences across, and no expense has been spared in bringing this world to life with an art-deco pop. But the film's utter lack of reflection does nothing to ripple its glossy surface.

With Cohen close to setting up a gambling wire that will give him a piece of every transaction in the western half of the United States, O'Mara's superior (Nick Nolte) puts him in charge of assembling an off-the-books task force — a "gangster squad," if you will — to bring down Cohen's operation.

For that, O'Mara partners up with the more lighthearted Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) and a team of other incorruptible cops, played by Giovanni Ribisi, Anthony Mackie, Michael Peña, and Robert Patrick. They've been told to target Cohen using any and all means, whether that means warrantless searches and wiretapping, or busting up brothels and nightclubs with machine guns.

A lovely Emma Stone turns up in the obligatory role of a moll who's caught between Cohen and Wooters, serving partly as evidence that women exist, and partly as confirmation that the filmmakers will leave no type unexploited.

There are a couple of occasions when one of O'Mara's men worry about mission drift — Ribisi's surveillance man, for example, worries that he's not making a good role model for his son — but it's remarkable how little Gangster Squad seems troubled by the moral and legal quandaries it poses. More consideration has been given to the shade of Stone's lipstick than to the complete dismissal of legal constraints.

Then again, Gangster Squad doesn't invite much thought. It parrots gangster films of old with a fetishist's eye for decor and wardrobe and the pace of a lurid dime-store novel. But it's all secondhand pastiche, striking only for its chilling subtext — that the authorities should be granted unlimited powers to protect ordinary citizens. Not even Dirty Harry expected that kind of latitude.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Tobias is the film editor of The A.V. Club, the arts and entertainment section of The Onion, where he's worked as a staff writer for over a decade. His reviews have also appeared in Time Out New York, City Pages, The Village Voice, The Nashville Scene, and The Hollywood Reporter. Along with other members of the A.V. Club staff, he co-authored the 2002 interview anthology The Tenacity Of the Cockroach and the new book Inventory, a collection of pop-culture lists.