It’s a man’s world in Ruben Fleischer’s Gangster Squad—specifically, Mickey Cohen’s. Loosely based on the real-life Jewish boxer turned mobster, Cohen (played by Sean Penn) has all of Los Angeles and its police, women, and money at his disposal. That is, of course, until a supergroup of rogue cops are assembled. Josh Brolin’s Sergeant John O’Mara commands said group, with the under-the-table blessing of the police chief (Nick Nolte, barely a cameo). The usual suspects—the ladies’ man (Ryan Gosling), the sharpshooter and his sidekick (Robert Patrick and Michael Pena, respectively), the one that’s good with knives (Anthony Mackie), and the techie (Giovanni Ribisi)—join together for an off-the-books operation in crime fighting.
No mysteries here: the men pick their targets and then shoot them all to hell. Gangster Squad operates according to the rules of the action film, in which bad guys getting shot and exploding vehicles are the narrative priority. Film noir is used purely as an affective style—the genre’s themes of damning fates and dead men walking are by and large ignored, save for the raging machismo that is unsurprisingly found at the intersection of both genres. Women are generally mothers or whores, made to leave the city when things get too hot. Emma Stone and her husky voice do their best Jessica Rabbit, but women are merely plot distractions, ineffective civilizing forces that frustrate the film’s action.
No character, male or female, however, suggests much by way of interiority. Gangster Squad doesn't trouble itself with man’s emotional turmoil, or even emotional numbness, in the face of rampant corruption. Noirs are filled with men without agency, but this film is chock full of men who do exactly what they want—which is to say, men with guns. It’s a good thing, then, that the shoot-’em-up scenes are so exciting. The camera doesn’t just sit there; incredibly dynamic, its movement makes the most out of both X and Y axes. In an opening fight scene that sees O’Mara taking out two gangsters in an elevator, the camera rapidly repositions from a low angle to a high one in a single brief boom up; an extended right-to-left pan of the assembly line of hurt the squad puts on Cohen’s men captures the coppers’ top-drawer teamwork.
Through all this the actors largely keep a low profile as performers, with the exception of Penn’s scenery-gnawing. It’s only fitting: Gangster Squad is less concerned with people than with privileging archetypes, guns, and other stuff to eat popcorn by.