"Gangster Squad" is dripping with swanky costumes and swankier art direction, detail and care pouring into its late-1940s era and classic film noir
style. The actors walk the walk of characters straight out of overwrought period potboilers, and, yes, they also talk the talk. "Who's the tomato?" asks Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) after spotting slinky red-haired siren Grace Faraday (Emma Stone) from across the dance floor at Hollywood hot spot Slapsy Maxie's. Later on, Grace excuses herself from the table of megalomaniacal mob boss Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) and his cronies by saying, "I'm gonna go bend my elbow while you gentlemen bend your ears." Did people seriously ever say things like this? Either way, it does have a nice ring to it. Drop the attractive drapery in "Gangster Squad," unfortunately, and what is left is a synthetic crime tale done in by rampant familiarity and nothing going on beneath the surface. Director Ruben Fleischer (2011's "30 Minutes or Less
") and first-time screenwriter Will Beall, adapting from the book by Paul Lieberman, are equipped to tell their story, but don't seem interested or educated enough to properly explore it beyond the bare essentials. It's the sort of film that fails to give its audience anything but a shrug to take away with them.
The year is 1949, and Mafioso Mickey Cohen is dead-set on building an empire as he makes the City of Angels his own. Not about to give into scare tactics, LAPD Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) enlists the aid of Sgt. John O'Mara (Josh Brolin) for a secret assignment: put together a squad of police officers to wage guerilla warfare against Mickey and drive him out of town. One of them, the aforementioned Jerry Wooters, has two personal stakes in the matter: he wants vengeance for the death of his shoeshine boy, a kid whom he watched get mowed down in a drive-by, and he hopes to save his new girl, Grace, currently one of Mickey's molls. Officer Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi) is the only member to question the laws being broken and the violence being committed on their way to bringing down their target. For the rest, being so-called "men of the law" is suddenly very limited in its connotations.
"Gangster Squad" is suitably pulpy without wading into over-the-top mockeryin other words, it doesn't reach the dizzying lows of 2006's Brian De Palma misfire "The Black Dahlia
"its impressive aesthetics and mid-level script and direction positioning it instead as something of an unofficial companion to 1996's "Mulholland Falls." Obvious work has been done to turn the visual clock back sixty-some years, but it feels more like dress-up than an authentic rendering of the time period. The picture also locates no greater meaning besides what's out in the open from the get-go: that Mickey Cohen is a mobster who wants to overtake Los Angeles, and must be stopped. Sgt. John O'Mara's makeshift squad is hardly much better in its own criminal actions, but this is all but skirted over in order to reach its high-throttle conclusion where the men finally reach Mickey at the Park Plaza Hotel. The ensuing shoot-out and ultimate hand-to-hand battle, it should be said, feels curiously mild-mannered and spineless arriving on the heels of the similar but far better show-stopping third act of 2012's "Django Unchained
Josh Brolin (2012's "Men in Black 3
") is the stoic, square-jawed anchor of the cast as Sgt. John O'Mara, a WWII vet trying to provide for himself and his pregnant wife, Connie (Mireille Enos), as she becomes worried the honest police officer she married is wavering from the straight and narrow. As smooth right-hand man Jerry Wooters, Ryan Gosling (2011's "Drive
") floats through the proceedings with charisma to spare but minimal gumption, as if he knows this project is more a lark than something he need bother to work up a sweat over. His romance with Emma Stone (2012's "The Amazing Spider-Man
") is perfunctory, at best, her Grace Faraday a failed wannabe actress who has latched on to Mickey Cohen out of self-defeat more than anything. She is not exactly a vision of modern feminism, though Stone, with her silky flowing hair, skintight dresses and smoky voice, was clearly tailor-made for portraying a bombshell of the Golden Age. Sean Penn (2010's "Fair Game
") gives perhaps the top performance as the heavy, former boxer Mickey Cohen, though that's because the actor, who has always had a penchant for chewing scenery, is free here to unleash a limitless amount of devious fire and brimstone. By comparison, Nick Nolte's (2011's "Warrior
") voice has become so rough and grizzled in his ripe age it looks physically painful for him to utter a syllable.
It is purported at the start of "Gangster Squad" that the film is inspired by a true story, likely meaning that Hollywood did, in fact, exist in 1949. Otherwise, sit back, shut your mind off, and take such claims with a grain of salt. Doing this won't make the movie any better, but it will allow the viewer to suspend disbelief. Judged on its own singular merits, the picture is as terminally empty as it is slick, at any point threatening to puncture itself with its own put-on-a-show, go-getter artificiality. When the ending is reached and what has long been predicted will happen does, the enterprise evaporates like a mist with nothing to grab hold of. Is that really all there is? Yes, apparently so.