In this rollicking, ultra-violent, color-soaked throwback to the golden age of gangster flicks, director Ruben Fleischer paints in very broad strokes. The titular band of heroes (headlined by Josh Brolin and Ryan Gosling) are knights in shining fedoras, veterans of World War II who dreamed of finding some peace and quiet in Los Angeles–only to learn that “paradise” is rotten to the core, ruled by the same kind of tyranny they fought overseas. The villainous Mickey Cohen (played by a scenery-chewing Sean Penn), meanwhile, is the sort of brutal, bloodthirsty, Machiavellian thug that only exists in works of fiction–at least, I sincerely hope so (his introductory scene sees him graphically tear a poor bastard messily in half, for God’s sake). It is, in short, a live action cartoon.
Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. While the film reaches the morally questionable conclusion that the end justifies the means, it follows a compelling path to get there, painting a portrait of decent men forced to become the very sort of monsters they oppose for the sake of the “greater good.” And, thankfully, it knows better than to take itself too seriously, emphasizing gunplay and bravado over brooding melodrama (though it doesn’t completely neglect the consequences of it’s protagonists’ bloody crusade against organized crime). Gosling in particular excels at keeping the proceedings light and enjoyable, handling writer Will Beall’s witty dialogue with aplomb and lending genuine humanity to his scenes with Emma Stone (with whom he shares electric onscreen chemistry).
Gangster Squad may ask difficult ethical questions only to short-change the viewer on satisfying answers (choosing instead to fall back on increasingly chaotic shootouts), but it is an energetic, engaging, and–above all–fun genre picture. I can’t really ask for much more than that.
[Originally written January 16, 2013.]