Set in Los Angeles in 1949, Gangster Squad is all about how John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), a police sergeant with the fine bones of a hero and the saturnine squint of a man who has seen the dark side, launches an offensive against Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), a ragingly ambitious psycho hoodlum who wants to make L.A. his empire. O’Mara knows that with a monster like Cohen, traditional law enforcement methods won’t cut it. He’s going to have to get dirty. So he puts together a squad of officers — Ryan Gosling as the cute, smooth, charming one, Giovanni Ribisi as the early version of a tech nerd, and so on — who will travel around the city without badges, disrupting Cohen’s rackets by using his violent tactics against him. This is one of those period underworld pictures that revel almost fetishistically in the details of the era: the long coats and fedoras and tommy guns, the iconic shots of old L.A. architecture, the ruby red lipsticks and body-hugging ’40s gowns worn by Cohen’s moll (Emma Stone, a little too nice for the part), the nightclub where a Carmen Miranda-like figure swivels her hips as she sings ”Chica boom! Chica boom!” Yet beneath the luster of its costumes and set design, Gangster Squad is all guns-blazing recklessness and tinny-bloody set pieces. It’s like L.A. Confidential remade as a mediocre Jason Statham film. It keeps going chica bang bang.
As Cohen, the infamous boxing champ–turned–Mob kingpin, Sean Penn does all he can to give one of those knowingly over-the-top performances — think Pacino in Scarface or De Niro in The Untouchables — that turn sociopathic rage into grand opera. The waxy makeup he’s wearing makes him look a bit too much like a villain out of Dick Tracy, but Penn, narrowing his eyes to slits and crumpling his kisser into a puckered obscenity machine, plays Cohen as a boneheaded but ruthlessly articulate power addict. He’s a schnook from the streets whose insane ambition — to own everything, including the police force — is his way of making himself “respectable.” When Penn is on screen, Gangster Squad is far from great, but it does crackle with a certain gutter fascination. The trouble is that the director, Ruben Fleischer (the music-video veteran who made Zombieland), lures us into wanting to see a thriller that runs on intrigue, but O’Mara and his team of cops never come up with a devious or even very coherent plan. They beat the hell out of folks, bomb storefronts, and race through the boulevards in their cool ’40s cars. And the movie, as criminal drama, goes nowhere.
Brolin and Gosling are both supposed to be playing World War II veterans who bring their knowledge of battle into the tough turf of the streets, but that’s just a concept that the sketchy, half-baked script tosses out there. Ditto for the secret and supposedly dangerous love affair between Gosling’s Sgt. Jerry Wooters and Stone’s Grace. You’d think that there would be a scene in which Mickey discovers what’s going on and fills the screen with his venomous threat. But no. In Gangster Squad, even the ultimate underworld betrayal is just another part of the scenery. C