NEW YORK – With “Gangster Squad,” director Reuben Fleischer (“Zombieland”) attempts to tap into the classicism of 1940s noir films with a stacked deck of great talent, but comes up empty-handed. A glitzy production design certainly creates an almost cartoonish version of Los Angeles with coppers and mobsters duking it out in the streets like the wild west, but “Gangster Squad” is ultimately a shallow and violent shoot-em-up that’s heavy on brawn and light on just about everything else.
Somewhere in this hyper-stylized actioner are remnants of some previously-conceived film, a better movie that feels as if it has been methodically stripped down over time, losing the pulpiness of the genre to the video game culture, with action sequences grasping for the audiences’ attention with flash-editing and slow-mo punching and shooting. While it may suit Guy Ritchie’s films, those contemporary stylizations are obtrusive when combined with the 1940s period sets, hammy dialogue and decadent costumes.
“Gangster Squad” is inspired by true events and follows the off-the-books LA officers who, at the tail end of the 1940s, went after the notorious Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), his gang of mobsters and their stronghold over the police and politicians in Los Angeles.
Josh Brolin is Sgt. John O’Mara, the all-American WWII vet who hasn’t quite put the war behind him and with an itchy temperament is looking to jump right back into another against Cohen. Brolin is a perfect fit for the gruff 1940s copper and is a nice contrast to the boyish, free-wheeling boozer Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling). Gosling and Brolin rise above the material to create two very entertaining performances as two cops usually at odds with one another.
Besides Wooters, O’Mara’s task force is also comprised of a quick-shot cowboy and his mentee (Robert Patrick and Michael Peña), a radio specialist (Giovanni Ribisi) and a tough, knife-wielding beat cop (Anthony Mackie). They aren’t quite Elliot Ness’s ‘Untouchables,’ but the ensemble does a fine job holding their own. The film also stars Nick Nolte as the police chief, Mireille Enos (“The Killing”) as O’Mara’s wife and Emma Stone as the damsel in distress, an aspiring actor who becomes entangled with Mickey Cohen and Wooters. The film spends little time on characterization, other than to let them remind us over and over that they were in the war, before rushing right into one fight after another. Like a video game, when one battle is over, the characters move on to the next, even bigger battle.
“Gangster Squad” is predictable and unnecessarily violent, but the cast holds the attention, especially Sean Penn’s boisterous performance as the sadistic Mickey Cohen. He runs the gamut from the expected clichéd mobster tyrant, to gruesomely chilling to some surprising subtle moments. But the awkward makeup job on his face makes him look less like a real person and more like a Dick Tracy comic strip character.
The movie hasn't been without controversy. Just after the Aurora shootings in July, the film was pulled from an August release for re-shoots because a major set-piece included a shootout between O’Mara and Cohen’s goons inside the crowded Mann’s Chinese Theater. The parallels were too stark for the film to be released.
Even with the wealth of great talent, the hyper-stylized “Gangster Squad” suffers from cheap effects and a weak script and is ultimately more video game than noir classic.