Sgt. John O'Mara is a hero.
It's not like he applied for such a status. He doesn't even think of himself as working hard to earn it. He certainly doesn't wave it around like a badge of honor. It's just who he is.
O'Mara is a WWII vet who came back to L.A., joined the police force and started a family. And he simply does his best to do what's right. If that means wading in to help the innocent regardless of the danger, then so be it. That's what he does. It's who he is.
Of course, that kind of heroic stuff can land him in hot water with his wife, who wants him home in one piece every night. It also puts him in some serious harm's way from quite a few really bad dudes.
You see, O'Mara isn't afraid to buck the mob. So when he spots one of mob boss Mickey Cohen's thugs take an innocent girl into a makeshift brothel for an "audition," he's gonna step in and help that girl right back out the door. No matter how many hired guns are on hand.
Yeah, yeah, that vicious ex-boxer thug Cohen has got just about all of City Hall in his pocket. So O'Mara's gonna hear about it from his boss. He'll get slapped on the wrist by the mayor's office. And the mob goons he drags in will be released by a crooked judge before you can say phooey! But that's just the way it is. O'Mara can't control them. What he can do is follow his own conscience.
After a fashion, though, people take notice of his right thinking.
O'Mara knows he's gonna get an earful when he's summoned before Police Chief Parker. And he does get one, but not in the way he expects. The chief asks him to gather together a secret squad. Fly below the radar. Run some special missions. Chief Parker likes the things O'Mara's been doing. And the way he sees it, the only way to keep L.A. from being taken over by the mob is to take direct aim at Cohen's operations. Not kill the mobster, because they'd only send in more like him. But destroy everything he operates until all the organized crime cronies just give up and limp away.
That suits O'Mara just fine. In fact, it's more than fine. It reminds him of the war he so recently fought in. You knew the enemy, you received your mission, and you followed it through. You made a difference, no matter the risk. And isn't the ruthless and brutal Cohen at least as foul as any Nazi? You bet he is. He's advancing on O'Mara's city, O'Mara's family; he's got to be stopped.
And it's a hero who has to do the stopping.
All of the cops who join O'Mara's squad seem to be upright guys who want to make a difference. We don't get to know them very well, but we see that several of the crew are compelled by wanting to improve their family or community. For instance, the tech wiz Conway Keeler says he wants to show his son that men stand up to evil. He says of the war they just returned from, "A brighter future, that's what we fought for, right?" And Coleman Harris wants to drive drug dealers out of his neighborhood. They all put their lives on the line for the cause; several are shot and some die.
O'Mara and his wife have a very loving relationship. She really doesn't like him taking the risks he does, but when she sees him determined to form the squad, she supports him and helps him handpick the best men for the job. O'Mara's close friend and squad mate Jerry is something of a hard-drinking smooth operator. But even he joins in O'Mara's cause after seeing a young boy killed by mobsters. After seducing and eventually falling in love with Cohen's moll, Grace, he finds something precious in their relationship and fights to protect her.
A frightened thug stammers out, "I swear to God, Mr. Cohen—" to which the mobster replies, "You're talking to God, so you might as well swear to me." Jerry jokes that O'Mara might be a "f‑‑‑ing angel!" When Jerry first starts his seduction of Grace, he tells her he's a traveling Bible salesman.
Part of Cohen's money-making machine churns around drugs and prostitution. We see one of his pimps luring a pretty girl into that sex slave ring. Later, a group of half-dressed female victims are led out of the building. A stripper in a club shakes her breasts and strips off her top to reveal her chest covered only by small pasties. A Carmen Miranda lookalike wears a midriff-revealing crop top while singing in a club.
Jerry seduces Grace with his smooth banter, and we later see the two kissing in bed, naked. (We see their bare shoulders.) It's implied that they have an ongoing sexual relationship. Grace wears form-hugging dresses and exposes a bit of cleavage. She and Jerry kiss several times.
Jerry tells a shoeshine boy that he only ought to be concerned with "how you're gonna get your hands up some girl's skirt."
The first time we see Mickey Cohen, he's torturing a man by drawing him between two cars. Cohen eventually gives the order for the cars to tear the guy in two. He allows his slavering pet dogs to chew on the remains.
That sets the tone for the film's gore-dripping future.
A few examples: Some of the close-up bloodletting features a man locked in an elevator, screaming and frying as the building burns down. Another victim is approached by a mobster carrying a large drill; the camera swings behind him and we see blood and tissue splatter on a window. Several men have their faces smashed through windows. A thug has his arm shoved through the grate door of an ascending elevator, snapping his hand off. A drug dealer passing heroin to a buyer has his hand nailed to the wall by a thrown switchblade. A young boy is caught in the crossfire of a tommy gun shoot-out and bleeds to death on the sidewalk. Explosions and more flying bullets leave other bystanders dead or rolling on the ground in agony.
Men are strangled, hit in the face with cudgels, pummeled ruthlessly with clubs, fists and swift kicks, riddled with an avalanche of bullets, sent flying with shotgun blasts, and detonated with grenades and exploding vehicles. Blood sprays and is seen smeared or spattered on walls, floors, ceilings and windows. O'Mara breaks Jerry's nose in a scuffle.
Crude or Profane Language
A dozen f-words and two or three s-words. A half-dozen or so uses of "a‑‑," "h-ll," "b‑‑ch" and "b‑‑tard." God's and Jesus' names are together misused about 15 times, God's being combined with "d‑‑n" about half the time. There are several crude references to male and female genitalia.
Drug and Alcohol Content
As if desperate to show us that lots of folks did indeed smoke back in the '40s, the filmmakers present scene after scene of lighters flaring and characters puffing away on cigarettes and cigars. Jerry and Grace share a cigarette in bed.
Alcohol flows quite freely as well. We see customers drinking wine, champagne and mixed drinks at several clubs. Jerry and O'Mara drown their sorrows in shared swigs from a bottle of Jack. Jerry staggers around at one point. A whole group of cops gets inebriated at another.
Cohen speaks of keeping his prostitutes as prisoners and constantly "hopped up on drugs" so they'll serve the customers at his will. The cops detonate and destroy Cohen's shipment of heroin.
There is something undeniably appealing about Hollywood's re-envisioned take on the 1940s. Through that silver screen lens, the period becomes a not quite real world of shadowy city streets, stylish suits, hard-boiled detectives, smoldering femme fatales and quick comebacks so sharp they slice through steely defenses like a hot knife through butter.
Gangster Squad—loosely derived from true events dramatized in a novel of the same name—works hard at being exactly that kind of film. And in some ways it succeeds. It's got the square-jawed heroes, the sleek retro fashions, the easy-to-hate crime boss and the oh-so-polished cinematic sheen. It even has something of a cheer-worthy tale at its core. You can't help but want to like an eclectic group of good-guy cops who're determined to make a difference and save the city that they love.
But just as Hollywood films are predictable, so are Plugged In reviews. So here's the downside to all that cool pre-Mad Men grandeur: Sadly, the script is shallow enough that we don't really get a chance to know the heroes we want to root for. They're kept at such arm's length that when they're sent into machine gun-blazing battle with the mobsters, thing start feeling a little muddled. It's almost ironic, then, when Officer Keeler, the wire-tapping "brains" of the squad, comes right out and asks Sgt. O'Mara, "Can you remind me the difference between us and them? 'Cause I can't tell anymore."
I had already started thinking the very same thing.
The film makes it clear that if you really want to fight the lawless thugs of the world, you have to be as lawless as they are—a vigilante mentality that's hardly moral and upright in any context, certainly not in a rose-colored "heroic" history lesson sort of way. And that plays out in one derivative shoot-out after another, scenes that feel all too familiar. One-by-one, bad guys and good alike are pummeled, battered, riddled and gut-shot.
That may make for plenty of pulpy, brutal action, dismemberments and blood spatter, if that's the style you're looking for. (And I can't help you here if you are.) But it's far less smart, uplifting and, well, entertaining than a film like this should be.