Josh Brolin, Sean Penn, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone star in "Gangster Squad"
The film is inspired by Paul Lieberman's series for the Los Angeles Times
Critic says Brolin, Gosling buddy dynamic never snaps into place
Editor’s Note: This review may contain spoilers.
After the Denver shootings during a showing of “Dark Knight Rises,” Warner Bros. swiftly withdrew the trailer of “Gangster Squad” from before the Nolan film and reportedly removed a sequence in which gangsters shoot up a movie theater from behind the screen.
Now “Gangster Squad” emerges just a month after the Newtown killings, a titillating but anodyne piece of gun glamour for the masses.
Inspired by Paul Lieberman’s series for the Los Angeles Times, “Tales from the Gangster Squad,” the movie ducks the obvious comparisons with “LA Confidential,” “Mulholland Falls” and “Bugsy” by opting for a pulpy vibe and poppy, comic book visuals.
This is no “Chinatown” exercise in history as neo-noir, and it’s sure no James Ellroy-style take down of the LAPD (the controversial 1950s Police Chief William Parker – played by Nick Nolte - gets a free pass for instigating what amounts to a vigilante hit-squad operating beyond any legal jurisdiction).
Rather it’s a gleaming, glossy parade of good-looking actors trading quips and striking poses in sexy period duds, only a couple of stops more naturalistic than “Sin City” or “Dick Tracy.” And it’s Beatty’s film that comes to mind most immediately, with Sean Penn channeling a snarling Al Pacino (and showing off a striking prosthetic nose) as ambitious LA racketeer Mickey Cohen, an all purpose bad guy who orders a Chicago rival to be chained to two autos and ripped in half in the film’s first minute.
Within another 60 seconds Josh Brolin’s square-jawed Sgt. O’Mara has established his impeccable heroic credentials by crashing one of Cohen’s brothels, shooting or beating up five of his henchmen and rescuing an innocent dame from a fate worse than death – all to the consternation of his immediate superiors, but impressing the heck out of Chief Parker.
“Don’t make arrests,” Parker growls. “This is occupied territory. Wage guerrilla warfare.”
For a spell the movie corrects to an engagingly fizzy tone.
O’Mara’s shrewd and pregnant wife (the excellent Mireille Enos) handpicks his squad. There’s a sharpshooter nicknamed “Cowboy” she read about in True Detective magazine (Robert Patrick); a brainiac who knows how to set up a wiretap (Giovanni Ribisi). Anachronistically, for Parker’s LAPD, there’s also an African-American who is handy with a knife (Anthony Mackie) and a Latino who muscles in on the action (Michael Pena).
Their first intervention is deliciously botched. And then they’re faced with getting out of Burbank alive. For all its historical liberties, the movie does have fun re-creating mid-century Los Angeles.
Last to sign up is Ryan Gosling’s Sgt. Jerry Wooters, an easygoing womanizer who happens to be sleeping with Mickey Cohen’s girl (Emma Stone doing a very passable Bacall), and whose less rigid approach to the job is meant to color our admiration for O’Mara’s righteousness.
But the more seriously “Zombieland” director Ruben Fleischer takes the material, the more vapid it comes off. Some glaring gaps in third act story logic don’t help, but the whole Gosling and Brolin dynamic never really snaps into place. Are they old war buddies? You can believe Brolin has seen some action, but Gosling just comes off as wet behind the ears – there’s no rapport between them, and no real reason to care when things go sour.
“Gangster Squad” looks the part, but it’s so superficial it practically evaporates before our eyes.