I'd say Gangster Squad was so hard-boiled, it's overcooked, but that wouldn't quite capture the problem with this 1940s-set would-be gangster-flick throwback. Out of his depth, director Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland) hasn't so much cooked something up as microwaved it. There's a distinctly synthetic feel to this period picture, which recreates such Hollywood iconography as the then-"Hollywoodland" sign and nightclub Slapsy Maxie's, complete with Carmen Miranda. For all of Fleischer's flashy flourishes (and the production design is, indeed, colorful), Gangster Squad plays like nothing so much as a cut-rate Untouchables.
In 1949, the Los Angeles Police Department has been greased by mob payoffs, necessitating an off-the-books response. Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) recruits "honest cop" Sgt. John O'Mara (Josh Brolin) to head up a special unit of stouthearted men to take down the likes of gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn).
Every character can be summed up pithily. Cohen? Psychopath. O'Mara? Grimly determined. Ryan Gosling's Sgt. Jerry Wooters? Playboy with a heart of gold. Robert Patrick's Officer Kennard? Deadeye. Giovanni Ribisi's Officer Keeler? Tech support. Michael Peña's Officer Ramirez? Um, token Mexican-American?
The crime of wasting Peña (so good in last year's LAPD drama End of Watch) demonstrates Gangster Squad's chronic inability to elevate its stock characters through dialogue or performance. The stellar cast —and more familiar faces seem to parade in every three minutes—drifts through the picture, and the sheer bulk of talent involved (top-tier technicians and designers included) turns out to be a case of water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink.
The clunky script by former cop Will Beall relies heavily on formula and thus has a tendency to telegraph; you'll know which characters will bite it within minutes of meeting them. While "inspired by a true story" (and based on the book by Paul Lieberman) about transplanted Chicago hood Cohen and the secret detail after him, the filmmakers' take is colossally ridiculous in its plot development, repeatedly raising the crazy bar. (Points, though, for briefly squeezing in Darryl Gates—played by Josh Pence—and more Burbank jokes than a Johnny Carson monologue.)
Much of the criticism of Gangster Squad, and there will be much criticism, will note the movie's glib ultraviolence. Kinetic fisticuffs and gunplay quickly lose their impact as Fleischer glamorizes the brutality—and has the bad luck to do so at the worst possible cultural moment (indeed, the film's release was delayed to excise a gun massacre in a movie theater, replaced by a gun massacre on a Chinatown street: thanks for nothin', Hollywood). The macho swag(ger) of Gangster Squad includes an unironic use of the "slo-mo striding away from an explosion shot," emblematizing Fleischer's clueless tastelessness.
To the extent that Gangster Squad is palatable at all, it's in the category of trashy fun, as in seeing Penn homage the ghosts of movie gangsters past. "Here comes Santy Claus!" he hollers, before spraying bullets. There's a gift horse one might look in the mouth.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]