As hollow, Hollywood-slick entertainment, “Gangster Squad” is watchable, but it should be a lot better. Originally slated for a September release, pushed back in the wake of the Aurora, Colo., movie theater shooting and now opening in the garbage-dump month of January, this forgettable cops-and-gangsters pulp has enough going for it, between the participation of a talented marquee cast and director Ruben Fleischer (2011’s mean-spirited “30 Minutes or Less”). Unfortunately, it’s no wonder there’s so much style because that’s all it really has. Fleischer mostly gets away with “Gangster Squad” being stylish and fun in the moment, but it still comes as a disappointment, considering the filmmaker revived the zombie genre with 2009’s gleefully inventive “Zombieland.”
Los Angeles, 1949. Ruthless boxer-turned-mobster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) is building the town into his underground empire of drugs and dames, finding beautiful star hopefuls to work in his brothels and controlling cops to be on his side of the law. Straight-arrow cop Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) spies on one of Cohen’s goons charming a pretty ingenue right off the bus and ends up saving her. To “drive that bastard out of this city,” Chief Bill Parker (a very gruff Nick Nolte) offers O’Mara to assemble a ragtag squad. Even though O’Mara’s pregnant wife Connie (Mireille Enos) wants him to be a father first and a heroic cop second, she handpicks the team of under-the-radar lawmen. There’s a street-wise officer, Coleman (Anthony Mackie); a legendary marksman, Max (Robert Patrick) and his Hispanic tag-along, Navidad (Michael PeÃ±a); and a wire-tapping guru, Conway (Giovanni Ribisi). Initially reluctant, O’Mara’s fellow war vet Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) later joins the covert squad and further complicates things when he and Grace (Emma Stone), Cohen’s tomato-haired, wannabe-star moll, become an item.
Though allegedly “inspired by a true story” (read: Mickey Cohen was, in fact, a real person), “Gangster Squad” seems to be at war with itself. If this is supposed to be a real account of journalist Paul Lieberman’s book, first-time screenwriter Will Beall doesn’t inject enough substance and too often draws from “The Untouchables” and “L.A. Confidential,” almost to the level of spoof. But if this is a superficial homage to film noir with graphic-novel flourishes and little soul, it works. Everyone speaks in an artificial ’40s-style patter, which often falls flat, but there’s violent carnage aplenty. From a cartoonish prison break that deftly synchs gun flashes with freeze frames, to the stylized, over-the-top showdown in the Park Plaza Hotel lobby (complete with a glass Christmas ornament exploding in slo-mo), Fleischer never skimps on style. (A shoot-out in Chinatown was reshot to replace a Grauman’s Chinese Theater-set massacre, which was pulled for eerily mirroring the real-life theater tragedy.)
Again, the ensemble is hard to beat, but so many of them are given bloodless types to play. Penn seems to have wandered onto the set from a “Dick Tracy” remake, playing Cohen as a broad, hard-boiled comic-strip villain like Big Boy Caprice in silly-putty makeup. He gives it his all, but his “all” consists of angrily chewing all the scenery like a rabid dog. Brolin is pretty solid as the slaw-jawed hero, and Enos is even better playing his wife. Gosling is smooth and charming, and looks dapper, but he speaks in a curiously nasally voice and has no real character to work with. The beloved Stone gets to smoke and play dress-up without looking too contemporary, but she’s stuck playing a dolled-up prop. While Gosling and Stone sizzled together in “Crazy, Stupid, Love.,” their romance here is such a nonstarter. Jerry sleeps with Grace right under Cohen’s nose, and we’re led to believe they’re actually in a relationship even though neither party knows much or anything about the other. The other actors in the gangster squad are pretty much wasted, Patrick standing out the most.
One thing is for sure: this is a spiffy-looking picture. The post-WWII period details of the City of Angels are simultaneously synthetic and glossy, from a glimpse of the then-“Hollywoodland” sign, to the recreation of art-deco nightclub Slapsy Maxie’s, to the costumes and architecture. Having a Carmen Miranda impersonator singing “Chica Chica Boom Chic” is just an extra fun touch. Then again, “Gangster Squad” is only ever easy on the eyes like window dressing that hides an empty room and shaky moral ground. In the end, when the tommy-gun bullets stop whizzing and the waxy aesthetics are done gleaming, one’s hand ultimately closes on air.
113 min., rated R.
Grade: C +