Lately, there’s been a lot of talk about how long movies are becoming. Award season is partially to blame; everyone seems to be assuming that a film’s length is directly proportional to its gravitas. The Hobbit: 169 minutes. Lincoln: 150 minutes. Les Miserables: 157 minutes. Django Unchained: 165 minutes. Sure, they’re all getting Oscar nominations, but not all of them deserve their running time (*cough* THE HOBBIT *cough*).
In waltzes Gangster Squad, at an eminently manageable 117 minutes. It’s a satisfying, good old-fashioned gangster shoot-‘em-up starring Josh Brolin, Sean Penn, Ryan Gosling, and Emma Stone, and a bulldog – oh, I’m sorry, that was apparently Nick Nolte. Sean Penn’s totally amazing fake nose is sadly left uncredited, but more on that later. This movie is a solid piece of action with a great, vaguely-sort-of-almost-based-on-real-life storyline and some engaging performances. It’s the perfect antidote to the award-season epic: it’s fun, and it doesn’t give two craps about gravitas.
Josh Brolin stars as Seargeant John O’Mara, one of the only clean cops in Los Angeles in 1949. He’s a World War II vet with an outstanding service record, some secret special training, and a near-obsession with duty, honor, and Doing The Right Thing. Though most policemen seem to be under the thumb of resident baddie, ex-boxer super-violent gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), O’Mara immediately starts beating up Cohen’s cronies and busts up one of his whorehouses. Noticing O’Mara’s pluck, Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) instructs O’Mara to put together a squad of clean cops to wage war on the gangster – off the record, no badges, doing what needs to be done. Will O’Mara win out against Cohen, without giving up his ideals in the process? Will the whole gang survive? Will Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone be cast opposite one another in every movie they make from now on?
Brolin gives a solid performance as O’Mara, suitably tough, fair, and tortured by his experiences in the war. Mireille Enos is an absolute gem as his wife, Connie – I would love to see her doing more things. Despite the fact that her character spends a bunch of scenes literally pregnant and in the kitchen, she turns her into so much more than a simple power behind her husband’s throne. Watch her closely – she’s worth it. Ryan Gosling gives a lovely, three dimensional, nuanced performance here; I totally forgot about all the ridiculous chick flicks I refused to see him in and completely fell in love (in my defense, he is a lot more difficult to resist when he’s wearing a fedora and punching lots of dudes). Emma Stone looks good, and the rest of the squad is quirky and entertaining. I’m so glad to see Nick Nolte getting work, but in the same way that Keanu Reeves could be replaced by a 2”x4” in any of his films, Nick Nolte could be replaced by a bulldog, and pretty much no one would notice. He comes into scenes to growl out lines like “WE CAN’T GIVE HIM ANY QUARTER!” and “WE NEED TO STEP UP OUR TIMETABLE!” After a few scenes of that, I just giggled whenever he came on screen and started referring to him as “Papa Nolte” in my head.
The knock-out performance of the movie (pun mostly intended I guess) is Sean Penn, who does a phenomenal job as Mickey Cohen. He’s threatening. He’s violent. Like, seriously violent. Like, we were surprised by how much eerily realistic violence was in this movie, right from the very beginning. Be warned. And his nose is huge. My viewing party was evenly divided on his makeup job. It was obvious they intended to make him look like his face was messed up from all those years of boxing, which didn’t play with all of us. I liked it and thought it fit; one of my friends, who has seen a lot of Sean Penn and is very familiar with his normal face, found it distracting. Either way, I found him completely scary and believable. Cohen was not a guy you wanted to find yourself next to in an elevator.
The film’s period design is done extremely well, and the sound track is functional, but nothing to write home about. The real strength here is the storyline, however true it is. It’s exciting, it’s funny, it’s moving. I thoroughly enjoyed this film, and I’m going to buy it on DVD for sure – I want to see it again.
I’m giving this movie 4 stars instead of 5 for two primary reasons. First, the clichés just don’t stop coming. Please keep in mind I’m paraphrasing, but…
“Tomorrow they’re taking my badge, but tonight we’re going to finish this.”
“The war taught us to fight. Now all I know how to do is fight. I don’t know how to live.”
Gah, I know, I know, maybe the sentiment is sincere. But the movie’s clichés just kept taking me out of the story, and that’s a disadvantage. Additionally, not all the performances are first-rate. Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Mireille Enos, and Sean Penn are the real heavy-hitters here; outside that core group, I didn’t find anyone who shocked me. The squad-members do fairly well, but the movie is littered with bit parts, various gangsters, girlfriends, policemen, passers-by, all of whom are competent and functional, but there wasn’t solidly great acting across the board.
That said, I highly encourage you to go and see this movie. It will show you a great time, and it won’t cost you three hours of your life to get there.