It goes without saying that any movie about post-World War II Los Angeles is going to be rife with violence and a noir aura (e.g L.A. Confidential, The Black Dahlia, et. al.). With Ruben Fleischer's (best known for Zombieland) Gangster Squad, however, there is a level of heroism and nobility that makes the amount of gruesome gore somehow necessary--if not somewhat cartoonish (think Dick Tracy).
Former boxer and Jewish friend to the Italian criminal underworld, Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), has viciously climbed his way to the top in Los Angeles, or what he calls "the wild fucking west." Our introduction to Cohen is none too delicate as he has a man literally ripped in half by two cars pulling away in opposite directions. The only person who seems to have an interest in thwarting Cohen from total domination is Sergeant John O'Mara (the always sexily stoic Josh Brolin). Frequently chastised for his insubordination, going after Cohen is just the latest in a series of O'Mara's efforts to clean up the city.
Slightly more cynical than O'Mara is Sergeant Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling--pause for swoon), who has largely given up on the concept of what it means to a police officer. His main habits are centered around drinking and hitting on dames, particularly Cohen's dame, Grace Faraday (Emma Stone, who really isn't curvaceous enough to embody the 1940s female archetype), as it were.
As Cohen's criminal activities become increasingly pervasive, the Chief of Police, Bill Parker (Nick Nolte, who looks like he's been made up just as heavily as Sean Penn for this role--but isn't), enlists O'Mara's skills (based on his army and police profile) to build an undercover squad to take down Cohen. O'Mara's pregnant wife, Connie (The Killing's Mireille Enos, who kind of looks like an older version of Ellen Pompeo), is instantly disillusioned by the notion of watching her husband put himself willingly in the crossfire. She concedes to let him go through with the mission, however, so long as she can select the members of the team.
Among the recruits are former detective Max Kennard (Robert Patrick), Navidad Ramirez (Michael Peña), an acolyte of Kennard's whose name is compared to a burlesque dancer, Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie), a rough cop who takes the law into his own hands on the Central beat, and the brains of the outfit, Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi), a former intelligence officer during the war. Once the team has been assembled, the "Gangster Squad" moves quickly into action, hitting Cohen where it hurts by taking down several of his casino operations.
In spite of impeding some of what Cohen views as "progress," it isn't enough to stop him, especially once Keeler learns that Cohen plans to control the only telecommunications wire in the west coast. With more and more blood being shed to stop him, Keeler begins to question whether or not the Gangster Squad is really any different from Cohen. As the film continues to explore the concept of evil and immorality, and how it can often unwittingly transmute from the seed of a good cause, it becomes clear that--even to achieve a greater good--there must often be some unethical carnage.
The cartoonish, over the top nature of the 40s gangster aesthetic is played up to perfection by cinematographer Dion Beebe (whose work on Nine and Miami Vice proves her flare undeniably). With the debauched city of Los Angeles to complement the nitty grittiness of the story, the movie is most notable for the visual (and not just Ryan Gosling). It also gives one a semi-accurate snapshot of how Sean Penn must have been acting during his marriage to Madonna.