Drawing from the pool of notorious baddies, “Gangster Squad” resurrects mobster Mickey Cohen, casting him as the villain pursued by a unit of Los Angeles cops who break conduct codes and commit mayhem en route to nabbing him. With its top-notch cast and potentially compelling antagonist, the film might have been a vital blend of popcorn and prestige entertainment. Sadly, it’s just another cartoonish actioner.
Director Rubin Fleischer (“Zombieland”) delivers the big but not the deep in this good-vs.-evil story that aims to be a bloody valentine to old Hollywood gangster flicks as well as a semiserious, “fact-inspired” crime drama.
Screenwriter and co-culprit Will Beall, adapting Paul Lieberman’s book, delivers hints of “L.A. Confidential” and “The Untouchables” amid a comic book-style plot containing little originality.
In 1949 Los Angeles, Brooklyn, N.Y.-raised boxer-turned-gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) runs the major crime rackets and has most of the police force in his pocket.
To crush him, the new police chief (Nick Nolte) assigns John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), an honest sergeant and military vet with a pregnant wife (Mireille Enos) and a war still raging in his head, to form an extralegal team of tough incorruptibles.
The dirty half-dozen — members include O’Mara’s womanizing second-in-command (Ryan Gosling), a streetwise beat officer (Anthony Mackie), a tech wizard (Giovanni Ribisi), a gun-slinging old-timer (Robert Patrick) and the latter’s sidekick (Michael Pena) — perform shoot-’em-up raids and other violent operations leading to the showdown.
On the romantic front, a triangle develops when Gosling’s character beds Cohen’s moll (Emma Stone).
The movie has some oomph and popcorn appeal. The squad members interact enjoyably. The 1940s Hollywood scenery, in heightened hues, scores escapism points.
But overall, this is a lurid, superficial and dramatically dim movie that abuses dramatic license and wastes stellar actors.
As they perform their missions, in which bullets stylishly explode and a slaughter in Chinatown occurs (replacing the cinema-massacre sequence removed after the Aurora tragedy), the characters have no chance to display any humanity.
Torture and other excess is depicted sensationally and approvingly. When Ribisi’s character observes that the police may be acting as atrociously as the gangsters, the heroically depicted O’Mara contradicts him.
If O’Mara, to whom the screenplay-hampered Brolin can bring only square-jawed authority, is tediously righteous, Cohen is more problematic still.
Penn is a force, but, because his character must be vileness personified in order to justify the questionable police tactics, he’s presented ridiculously in one dimension. At one point, he applies an electric drill to somebody’s head.
At another, he exclaims, “Los Angeles is my destiny!”
Gosling does his Romeo act with typical flair, but he and Stone are trapped in a fabricated plot line that, like so much of what transpires here, lacks credibility. Mackie, Ribisi, et al., have frustratingly little to do.