Gangster Squad may lack brains and heart, but it's got guts. You get to see 'em right at the outset, when a Chicago crook who dares to cross power-mad Los Angeles gangster Mickey Cohen (a guttural Sean Penn) gets ripped in half by a couple of sedans. (Then again, you get to see brains, too — but that's not until later on.) So yeah, there's plenty of violence. And Ryan Gosling is handsome, and Emma Stone is old-fashionedly pretty. And Los Angeles circa 1949 looks great. Beyond that, this tale of a good cop in a crooked town who tries to clean things up by forgetting about the law and treating American gangsters like an enemy army is a casserole made from tired leftovers. Blend up The Untouchables, Dick Tracy, and Mulholland Falls, drain off the moral intrigue, sprinkle with bits of soul-searching, reheat, and serve. With Josh Brolin, Nick Nolte, Robert Patrick.
Judging by the dewy exhalation that sighed forth from at least half the audience in attendance at the prerelease screening, it may be that the opportunity to put sensitive, handsome Ryan Gosling in a suit and fedora was reason enough to make Gangster Squad. (Poor Emma Stone; it’s hard to play a gorgeous gun moll when your costar is just as pretty as you are.) Then again, judging from the gasps and winces that came later in the screening, it may have been the opportunity to bring Herschell Gordon Lewis–levels of gore to the gangster genre: people getting ripped in half by cars, hands snapped off by elevators, bits of brain matter floating in a pool beside a corpse.
Judging by the more pedestrian indicators of story and dialogue, however, the point here is that The War Is Over, But The Battle Goes On. Our boys have traded their Army uniforms for police badges, but things prove trickier on the homefront. Corruption abounds, thanks to ruthless gangster Mickey Cohen (a glowering, guttural Sean Penn). A good man — in this case, a slab of decency played by Josh Brolin — may find himself stymied at every turn. That is, until the chief of police (bearish Nick Nolte) tells him to assemble a guerrilla strike force and go to town, using the rationale that the rise of organized crime in Los Angeles “isn’t a crime wave, it’s enemy occupation.”
With the help of his magnificent, pregnant wife, Brolin assembles his team: an honest black, a rookie Hispanic, a brilliant techie, a weathered cowboy, and the reluctant bad boy Gosling, whose sense of justice is finally roused by the suffering of innocents. The story that follows is not so much hardboiled as boilerplate, from the botched initial efforts to the completely preposterous ending.
As for the rest of it, Gangster Squad is a casserole concocted from leftovers. Sean Penn’s vicious crime boss owes much to Robert DeNiro’s Al Capone in The Untouchables, just as Josh Brolin’s honest, wooden cop owes much to Kevin Costner’s Eliot Ness. Gangsters get pushed off Mulholland Drive by under-the-radar cops, just like in Mulholland Falls. There’s a bit with a bug that’s taken straight out of Dick Tracy. Sprinkle the whole with bits of soul-searching dialogue (and even voiceover) about what makes cops different from criminals, reheat, and serve. Anyone hoping for dramatic meat to chew on is likely to go home hungry.
Even so, there are some quality ingredients in the mix. Los Angeles circa 1949 looks eye-poppingly great. Robert Patrick’s turn as a Wild West lawman who still carries a six-shooter was enough to make me wish for a Western revival. Plus, you know — sigh — Ryan Gosling, mowing down bad guys while holding a machine gun backwards and over his head.