Early in Gangster Squad, circa-1949 Los Angeles crime kingpin Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) tells a Mafia rival he’s no longer beholden to the Italians in Chicago because he’s got a new vision for doing business. Which is kind of ironic, since Gangster Squad ends up doing nearly everything “the Chicago way.”
Specifically, director Ruben Fleischer’s fact-based story feels like an attempt at remaking Brian DePalma’s 1987 classic The Untouchables. Penn’s above-the-law Cohen replaces DeNiro’s above-the-law Al Capone; Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) is the straight-arrow, family-man law-enforcement official tasked with bringing Cohen down. And he puts together a team of like-minded uncorrupted cops (Ryan Gosling, Robert Patrick, Michael Peña, Anthony Mackie and Giovanni Ribisi) who can make life miserable for the gangster until [SPOILERS]. Even the tense set pieces setting up stylized gunplay and over-the-top violence—including a guy literally being torn in half, and another executed with a power drill—feel like riffs on DePalma.
The whole package is sporadically effective for a while, primarily in the sheer momentum it builds. It’s also fairly satisfying in the place it diverges most from The Untouchables, giving Gosling’s cynical, reluctantly crusading cop some great flirtation with Cohen’s girl (Emma Stone, also Gosling’s romantic interest in Crazy, Stupid, Love).
Eventually, however, it becomes clear that there’s just not enough going on beneath the surface in terms of the character relationships, while the surface itself starts to feel far too familiar in its copycat style and structure. And perhaps it would’ve been a good idea for Fleischer to tell Penn that maybe the “visionary” Cohen could have been played a bit more as a savvy businessman, and a bit less as a raving psychotic.
DePalma himself notably stole from plenty of masters, including for The Untouchables. Gangster Squad shows that even stealing from the best is no guarantee of success.
Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn