It’s got the fashion and neon flash of 1949 Los Angeles, but Gangster Squad, a movie about the LAPD’s attempt to destroy Mickey Cohen’s attempt to take over the mob, is an empty zoot suit. This is as puzzling as it is unfortunate, as the source material is fascinating and the cast is incredibly talented, but director Ruben Fleischer seems unable to massage either into a cogent, meaningful story.
Josh Brolin is Sgt. John O’Mara, a returned veteran who doesn’t seem to realize that, as many characters remind him, the fighting’s over. Physically, Brolin is well cast, but the script gives him little to do other than shoot his gun and punch bad guys. LAPD Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) recruits O’Mara to assemble a band of like-minded cops who despise the corruption that is threatening whatever moral core the City of Angels ever had. This leads to somewhat amusing “Let’s round up the gang” sequences, where we meet characters played by Ryan Gosling, Anthony Mackie, Michael Peňa, Giovanni Ribisi and Robert Patrick. Their names, like their character traits, are beside the point, as they merely exist on screen as the cute vet, the black dude, the Hispanic cop, the brainiac, and the old guy. Emma Stone, looking glamorous but with nothing to do, is Cohen’s reluctant moll who gets a little something on the side with Gosling. And Cohen himself is played by Sean Penn, in what has to be one of the most synthetic performances of his career.
Fleischer and screenwriter William Brall avoid any of the trappings of character development which made L.A. Confidential so special, instead focusing on big, loud shootouts. Apparently, the film had to be reshot post-Aurora to transform a theater gunfight into a shoot-’em-up in Chinatown—the cinematic equivalent of switching out white sugar for brown. Admittedly, the violence has an almost elegant quality to it, but so much of what we see has been done before, and done much better in movies like L.A. Confidential, The Untouchables, even the mostly forgettable Dick Tracy. Los Angeles itself gets short shrift too, with no real evocation of changing times and postwar uncertainty. Gangster Squad is a movie you really want to like, for a number of reasons, one of which is just that it could have been fun. But it’s bloated and messy, and strangely sterile.