By Robert Horton Herald Film Critic
“Gangster Squad” is the kid who desperately wants to be like the other kids, observes how everybody else acts and then mimics the behavior and the lingo in hopes of being taken for one of the gang.
It rarely works, and it sure doesn’t work for “Gangster Squad.” This is a lively but lame affair that wishes it were “L.A. Confidential” or “The Untouchables.”
The setting is postwar Los Angeles, where gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) has bribed and murdered his way into a violent reign of terror. The police chief (Nick Nolte) picks out a Dick Tracy-jawed Detective O’Mara (Josh Brolin) to head up a secret squad of mob fighters.
Brolin approaches the role like an drama student in an acting class assigned to play a side of beef. Which is probably the best you can do with a script like this.
Scenes of him gathering together his team are enjoyable enough, because those scenes always are. O’Mara’s right-hand man is the smart-talking peacock Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), who just happens to be sleeping with Cohen’s big-eyed moll (Emma Stone, whose chemistry with Gosling was rather better in “Crazy. Stupid. Love.”).
The other g-squadders are ethnically diverse (the talented Anthony Mackie and Michael Pena don’t get to stretch much here) and include one deadeye refugee from the Old West, played with mustache and charm by professional badass and onetime “Terminator” dude Robert Patrick. The obligatory nerd is embodied by surveillance whiz Giovanni Ribisi.
Keeping in line with the film’s oddly jaunty tone, the squad comically blunders through their first few assignments. Through the wisecracks, one hopes that not too many innocent bystanders are killed by tommy guns spitting bullets.
Even worse than the misplaced jolliness are the occasional stabs at significance. The fellows muttering about “what the war did to them” and wondering whether, by using extra-legal means, they’ve descended to the level of gangsters — that stuff feels penciled in from a screenwriter’s how-to book.
Sean Penn wears a putty nose and scars and acts up a storm. It’s not his best work. Gosling comes off best by relying on charm, although his high-pitched vocal approach suggests that Penn’s fussy methods may have been contagious.
The director is Ruben Fleischer, who made the fun “Zombieland” and the not-fun “30 Minutes or Less.” He’s comfortable enough with comedy, including the playful scenes between O’Mara and his wife (Mireille Enos, from “The Killing”); the problem is these don’t blend especially well with the gun craziness.
A big sequence was reshot after “Gangster Squad” was pulled from its September release date in the aftermath of the movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colo. (If you can remember that many mass shootings ago.) This change has no appreciable effect on a movie that was probably always a dud.
“Gangster Squad” (1 star)
This violent yet jarringly jovial period piece looks at an extra-legal group of postwar L.A. cops who go after gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn). A brawny cast is in place, but the tone is way off. With Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling.
Rated: R for violence, language.