Post-war L.A. The glitzy and glamorous City of Angels is under the thrall of brutal mob boss Mickey Cohen, with mob slayings on every corner and half the police force on the make.
Or so Gangster Squad, the third feature of director Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland, 30 Minutes or Less), would have us believe. This is a hard-boiled noir-ish world, pulpy and vivid. Starring Josh Brolin (No Country for Old Men, W.) as brawler cop Sergeant John O’Mara, Ryan Gosling (The Notebook, Drive) as the soft-spoken Sgt. Jerry Wooters, Emma Stone (East A, The Amazing Spiderman) as gangster’s moll and love interest Grace Faraday, and, lest we forget, multiple Oscar winner Sean Penn (Mystic River, Carlito’s Way) as the vicious, scenery-chewing Cohen.
From the opening scene in which a hapless Chicago wise guy is torn apart by opposing cars behind the Hollywoodland sign, the film steeps itself in the lore of every gangster film that has come before it. Brolin’s O’Mara is a less morally compromised Bud White (Russell Crowe’s character in L.A. Confidential) while Gosling’s Wooters could have stepped straight out of any number of classic cops v. crooks classics. The underutilized Emma Stone’s conflicted dame has the appropriate “legs up to here” look going for her and plenty of chemistry left over from Crazy, Stupid, Love, her previous film with Gosling.
Compare, however, Penn’s snarling Cohen to, for instance, Robert DeNiro’s cheerfully psychotic Capone in DePalma’s The Untouchables, and the gulf becomes clear. Despite his claims of manifest destiny and social climbing aspirations, Cohen is a one-note villain – every gesture may be imbued with menace, but, unlike with DeNiro’s turn as a historical mob boss, he fails to realize that violence is at it’s scariest when you can’t see it coming. Penn, for all his talents, isn’t Cagney, and Gangster Squad telegraphs every development as clearly as it’s influences. It’s all charm and gloss, all flash and not much bang.
The supporting cast isn’t particularly well served either in roles that could charitably be described as boilerplate: Nick Nolte’s bullish but impotent Chief Parker; Robert Patrick’s old-time gunslinger; Michael Pena’s cocky (read: Hispanic) rookie; Anthony Mackie’s knife-wielding, well, black guy. I’ve previously commented on Pena’s respectable acting capabilities in my review of End of Watch, and it’s a shame that he and the similarly talented Mackie (who received an SAG nomination for The Hurt Locker) are reduced to their ethnicities for the sake of a group dynamic. Giovanni Ribisi’s family man/wire tapper fares better, but not by much.
There are a couple of nice if unremarkable shootouts with some judicious use of slow motion: bullet shells tumble as the marble lobby of a grand hotel is blasted to smithereens. Gangster Squad’s release was delayed considerably by the parallels between one scene – a shootout in a cinema with gangsters moving their way through the screen with tommy guns – and the theater shooting in Aurora, which is understandable given the need for tact, but Gangster Squad is such a bloodless affair it’s hard to imagine it prompting much of anything in response.
When one of the eponymous squad – spoilers! – finally pays the iron price two-thirds of the way into the way into the film, safe to say you will have seen it coming a mile off (if only because The Untouchables did the same thing first). Gangster Squad is resigned to following an unwritten role book, to repeating the clichés. As I mentioned earlier, it’s vivid and pulpy – Fleischer’s strangely frenetic yet streamlined style is a decent fit, but it’s the very definition of style over substance. To give Gangster Squad it’s due, it’s entertaining enough to justify a viewing, but it gets there riding on the coattails of far better movies.