A smart screenwriter might have used the stylish but empty-headed shoot-’em-up “Gangster Squad” to draw a relevant correlation between the CIA’s hunt for Osama bin Laden and the city of Los Angeles’ Constitution-be-damned vendetta against famed mobster Mickey Cohen. But then I’m betting no one ever suspected scripter Will Beall of being Mensa material.
Instead of following in the steps of “Zero Dark Thirty” and creating a fascinating moral quandary over whether the ends justify the means in bringing down a mass murderer, Beall uses his “inspired-by-true-events” chronicling of L.A.’s controversial Gangster Squad – a group of six cops given carte blanche to use any means necessary to rid their city of “undesirables” – to merely crack wise and create numerous scenarios aimed at tapping out Hollywood’s voluminous fake-blood supply. Nowhere will you find a splattering of gray matter. That’s because brains aren’t permitted anywhere near the opulent post-World War II sets.
Brawn, however, is abundant, along with slumming actors anxious to play dress-up and collect a large paycheck. It’s a virtual who’s who of talent, led by an over-emoting Sean Penn as Cohen, a Brooklyn-born Jew who rose to become the West Coast’s most notorious mobster following the gangland slaying of his close pal and partner, Bugsy Siegel. Together, they helped found the gambling mecca of Las Vegas, but in L.A. they were the kingpins of drug-running, prostitution and, of course, murder. In the late 1940s, no cop, politician or judge dared to bring Cohen down, largely because most of them were on the payroll. An exception was straitlaced L.A. Police Chief William Parker (Nick Nolte), a devout Catholic inflicted with a touch of paranoia toward his perceived Jewish critics.
According to the film, which is loosely based on a book by former Los Angeles Times reporter Paul Lieberman, it was Parker’s idea (actually, it was C.B. Horrall’s, Parker’s predecessor) to set up a clandestine squad of clean cops to go rogue and bring down Cohen and his lieutenants through any – legal or illegal – means.
Heading the hand-picked Mission: Impossible-like team is Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), a war hero determined to make the city safe for his soon-to-be-born child. As his second, he selects the flashy, womanizing Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling, often sounding like he’s inhaling helium); and to finish out the crew, he appoints a rainbow coalition of specialists, from wire-tap expert Conwell Keeler (an overly bookish Giovanni Ribisi), aging marksman Max Kennard (a grizzled Robert Patrick), switchblade-wielding Coleman Harris (Gosling’s “Half Nelson” co-star Anthony Mackie) and the young-and-green newbie, Navidad Ramirez (a wasted Michael Pena). Completing this embarrassment of acting riches is smoky Emma Stone (looking like a real-life Jessica Rabbit) as Cohen’s luscious moll, Grace Faraday, the film’s lone fictional character and convenient love interest for her “Crazy, Stupid, Love” love interest, Gosling. Any comparisons to Veronica Lake and Lauren Bacall are welcome, particularly when she’s dropping sultry lines like, “I think I’ll go bend my elbow while you boys bend your ears.”
Page 2 of 2 - To the credit of director Ruben Fleischer (“Zombieland”), he wastes little time setting up the premise and introducing the players. And for a while, he keeps things moving at a brisk pace, taking full advantage of his ensemble’s universal wit and charm. But as the movie drags on and turns into more of a 1940s fashion show in which the actors become clothes horses instead of living, breathing characters, “Gangster Squad” quickly runs out of steam. Its jarring attempts to lace the drama with Tarantino-type humor and sardonic violence (a mob fink chained to two cars and pulled apart like a wishbone) only add to the growing frustration.
The most glaring flaw, though, is the utter lack of rhyme and reason in how the squad goes about its business. It needn’t be anything as intricate or complex as TV’s “The Wire,” but the only inkling of strategy we get comes via recurring scenes of the gang foolishly storming into harm’s way with machine guns afire. It’s as nonsensical as Penn’s over-the-top portrayal of Cohen, who, by all reports, was nothing like the big-mouthed Tasmanian devil he couches him to be. And never mind that Penn, 52, is almost two decades older than Cohen was in 1949, the year in which most of “Gangster Squad” is set. But then that’s just one of the dozens of factual errors that pop up en route to Cohen’s predictable comeuppance.
Still, the film is never anything less than watchable, largely because of its seductively stylish look and bevy of charismatic actors. But in the wake of so many deadly shootings of late, including the tragedies in Newtown and Aurora, the almost unmitigated celebration of violence seems in awfully poor taste. And this despite Fleischer cutting a scene in which gunfire breaks out inside a movie theater, a set piece that was axed and reshot following the events in Aurora, delaying the film’s release by four months. Yet, all the blazing weapons and dancing bullet casings would be tolerable if only the paper-thin story didn’t make it all seem so gratuitous. For “Gangster Squad” that’s the most heinous crime, and it leaves you mournful of what might have been if Hollywood, for once, valued brains more than bullets.
GANGSTER SQUAD (R for strong violence and language.) Cast includes Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. Directed by Ruben Fleischer. Grade: B-