Gangster Squad is The Untouchables moved west and cheesed up — apparently by filmmakers with few original thoughts in their heads. It’s a derivative cartoon that’s oddly entertaining, although it seems to want credit for regurgitating every gangster movie cliche. Writing lines about the “war for the soul of Los Angeles,” having sharply dressed detectives shout “Hold on to your hats!” and referring to attractive young women as “tomatoes” is not the sort of work that earns Best Adapted Screenplay nominations (Gangster Squad is “inspired” by a book by Paul Lieberman). It’s the cinematic equivalent of Bon Jovi’s You Give Love a Bad Name: You know in your heart it’s a crappy song, and every wince-inducing line is an affront to your intelligence, but hey, it’s on the radio, so you turn up the volume and sing along anyway.
At least Gangster Squad, originally slated for release last fall and pushed back after the theater shootings in Aurora, Colo., doesn’t take itself too seriously, even if most of the actors play their roles earnestly. It’s cheerfully ham-handed, even when people are getting Tommy-gunned to pieces or set afire or garroted or chained to cars and pulled apart (the squeamish are going to want to close their eyes for the gruesome opening scene). There’s no emotional cost to any of the violence — it’s just for fun. Remember when Quentin Tarantino was always being accused of using violence for laughs, back before Inglourious Basterds? Gangster Squad pulls out the same trick without Tarantino’s cleverness, and it feels a little outdated.
Set in glamorous, postwar Los Angeles, the movie follows the attempts of straight-arrow Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) and his team of outlaw cops to drive mobster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) out of business. Tasked by the police chief (Nick Nolte) to take back the city — the politics in this L.A. are slightly less believable than those in Gotham City — they have license to kill. There are no women in the group, naturally, because it’s 1949, so women are either wives or whores; you can tell by how much lipstick they wear.
The action consists mainly of men shooting at each other and missing a lot, and there’s a fair amount of chatter about what we fought for in the war (apparently it wasn’t brothels, bookmaking or anything else Mickey Cohen touches). You know this group better than you know your family. There’s a crusty old-timer (Robert Patrick); the brains of the operation (Giovanni Ribisi), who plants a bug in Mickey’s mansion so effortlessly you really have to wonder about the mobster’s security detail; the ethnic cops nobody else wants to work with (Anthony Mackie and Michael Peña) who are loyal and true.
Jerry (Ryan Gosling) is, not surprisingly, the Lothario of the bunch, and he’s brave and foolish enough to hop into bed with Mickey Cohen’s girlfriend Grace (Emma Stone, who is not now and never will be a tomato). Gosling and Stone worked together so well in the comedy Crazy, Stupid, Love that the filmmakers must have jumped at the chance to throw them together again, but Stone is badly miscast. Requiring her to play a bimbo who rose through the mob king’s brothels but is so dumb she can’t figure out how to get out of town by herself is a colossal mistake.
And then there is the menacing Penn, hammy and scowling and slugging it out in a way that makes DeNiro’s Capone look restrained. But really, there’s no way to be subtle when your dialogue consists of bellowing “I AM progress!” or “Los Angeles is my destiny!” But why should he be anything but grandiose? Loud, brash and utterly ridiculous, Gangster Squad isn’t about doing what’s right — it’s all about stylish excess.
Cast: Sean Penn, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Josh Brolin, Nick Nolte, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, Robert Patrick, Michael Pena, Mireille Enos.
Director: Ruben Fleischer.
Screenwriter: Will Beale. Based on the book by Paul Lieberman.
Producers: Dan Lin, Kevin McCormick, Michael Tadriss.
A Warner Bros. release. Running time: 113 minutes. Strong violence, language. Playing at: area theaters.