The handsome-if-bland crime drama “Gangster Squad” has an all-star cast and a distinctive look, but its quality pales in comparison to the two movies it aspires to be: “L.A. Confidential” and “The Untouchables.”
Supposedly based on a true story, “Gangster” tells the story of a war between a secret branch of the L.A.P.D. and a mobster named Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) in 1949 Hollywood. The premise offers director Ruben Fleischer plenty of opportunity to bounce a whole lot of bloodshed off a sleek, streamlined, Art Deco-rich scrim, but the movie can’t decide if it wants to play up the pulpiness or if it wants to play it straight.
Instead, “Gangster Squad” tries to have it both ways. So we get scenes in which we’re asked to care whether certain cast members get blown away by the bad guys mixed with idiotic slow-mo of the bad guys cackling as they blast away with their tommy guns. We get characters who’re actually fleshed-out by the actors who play them mixed with cartoony villains straight out of an old “Dick Tracy” comic strip. And, although the movie strives for the cool elegance of “L.A. Confidential,” it also strives to incorporate far too much sadistic brutality.
That leaves the actors without much to do but model stylish fedoras while they’re bashing people’s heads in. It’s redundant. Luckily, the movie’s game cast is up to the challenges set forth by Fleischer, who also directed “Zombieland.” Josh Brolin and Ryan Gosling are aces as cops given the go-ahead by Chief of Police Nick Nolte to decommission Cohen using any means necessary. There’s also a romance between Gosling and Emma Stone, playing the token femme fatale, that seems highly unlikely in the context of the story, and there’s a fair amount of humor courtesy of a sharpshooter played by Robert Patrick.
It took me awhile to get into “Gangster Squad.” Every scene is so drastically overlit that it has the unfortunate effect of making the actors appear as if they’re made out of plastic. But once the movie found its groove I found myself tangentially involved, if only because I’m a sucker for these sorts of crime dramas and I really wanted it to succeed.
Alas, in the end, “Gangster Squad” does not. The movie collapses under the weight of its brutality, and Penn’s cartoonishly evil portrayal only serves to drag the movie down further. To see a much better movie in which Brolin tries to kill Penn, check out “Milk.” To see a better movie in which Gosling romances Stone, rent “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” To see a so-so movie starring all four of these actors, see “Gangster Squad.”
★★ out of ★★★★
Rated R for course language and nonstop brutality. 112 minutes.
Director: Ruben Fleischer. Starring: Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling.