More L.A. Noire than L.A. Confidential, Ruben Fleischer’s Gangster Squad is the kind of movie that the term “All style, no substance” was created for. This is a movie that has more in common with the pulpy detective comics you’d find nurturing cobwebs at a neighborhood comic book store than the hard-boiled works of James Elroy. In other words, it’s a live-action cartoon: Stylish, soulless, cliché-ridden and woefully predictable. Despite its problems, which includes wasting a colossally talented cast including Josh Brolin, Sean Penn, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, Gangster Squad never overstays its welcome and never takes itself too seriously, which makes it an easy-to-digest bauble, which is, frankly, a relief.
Written by former L.A.PD detective Will Beal, and based on the book of the same name by former L.A. Times writer Paul Lieberman, Gangster Squad, is set in the late 40s, a little after World War 2. Los Angeles, though booming, has also become a haven for drugs, booze and racketeering. At the center of it all is mob kingpin Mickey Cohen, who has all the city’s top wigs wrapped around his fat fingers. Cohen is played by Sean Penn in a performance so outrageous and cartoonish, it could be mistaken for parody. Penn is one of our finest actors but he also has a bad tendency of dialing it up to 11 and in Gangster Squad, he takes the histrionics up to 12. He doesn’t just chew the scenery, he mauls it and then rolls around in it for good measure.
Since The Untouchables aren’t available to take down Cohen, the Police Commissioner (Nick Nolte, growling his way through another fat paycheck) calls up Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), apparently the only good cop left in town, to put together a special unit of incorruptible cops to take down Cohen where it hurts him worst – his wallet.
O’Mara, a war veteran (of course he is!) with a pregnant wife (why, of course!), goes out of his way to find an interesting bunch of guys to fill his roster but eventually settles for one pensive science nerd (Giovanni Ribisi, wasted), one brash cowboy (Robert Patrick, wasted), one rookie Latino (Michael Pena, wasted), one honest black cop (Anthony Mackie, wasted), and a charming drunk lothario, who is naturally played by Ryan Gosling in a grossly lazy performance that feels cobbled together from parts of better performances (Think Drive meets Crazy, Stupid, Love).
Along the way, the squad has fun, fouls up, and eventually learns how to clean up the streets of L.A. before things predictably start to get nasty. Lot of shooting ensues. A ton of people get butchered, but no one important enough to care about. Somewhere in the middle of it all is Emma Stone, grossly miscast as Cohen’s mistress, whose entire role and character arc amounts to looking stunning in a parade of gorgeous gowns and then playing “love interest.”
Somewhere in Gangster Squad was a good movie waiting to burst through. Maybe it was cut out after the shootings in Ohio caused the filmmakers to change the plot drastically. While it has its share of fun moments and flies by without much of a fuss, it’s pretty much a wasted opportunity. All it amounts to being is a silly cops & gangsters, let’s play dress-up movie with characters so poorly realized, they seem like they had been picked up from a bargain bin “How to Make Your Own Noir Movie” guidebook.
Directed by: Ruben Fleischer
Written by: Will Beall
Starring: Josh Brolin, Sean Penn, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone
Rated: R (for an exuberant amount of blood and gore, some sexual situations and language)