Cops fight mobsters in 1949 Los Angeles in Gangster Squad, a lovely but dull-bladed knife of an action movie.
In the beginning of so very much voice-over narration, police Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) tells us that in 1949 Los Angeles, gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn, Al-Pacino-ing it up all over the place) is taking over. The cops are either in his pocket or are too afraid to do anything. (We get that “evil to triumph/good men do nothing” quote, just in case you thought there might be some original stuff happening here. No, no there is not.) When O’Mara goes to rescue a wannabe ingenue from the hands of one of Cohen’s pimps, his partner doesn’t back him up. And even though he rescued a house full of women being held captive in one of Cohen’s brothels, O’Mara is the one who gets in trouble while the men he arrests are set free.
Ah, but police Chief Parker (Nick Notle) likes the cut of his jib and tells O’Mara that he wants him to head up a special gangster squad. These men will be tasked with destroying Cohen’s organized crime operation however they have to — no warrants, no arrests, just kicking butt and setting things on fire. O’Mara gets to build his own crew; his pregnant wife (Mireille Enos — this is apparently her punishment for not telling us who killed Rosie Larsen fast enough) helps him shift through personnel files to find misfits like him. There’s ye olde gunslinger-type Max Kennard (Robert Patrick) and his partner Officer Navidad Ramirez (Micheal Peña). There’s Officer Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie), who has been fighting Cohen’s heroin sellers in the city’s African American neighborhood. There’s Officer Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi), nerd. And then there’s Officer Smokin’ Hot Ryan Gosling — er, I think his character is called Jerry Wooters — whose specialty is the cynical smirk and looking smoking hot. He’s all “can’t fight the system” until he realizes that Cohen has a dishy girlfriend, Grace Farady (Emma Stone), and then he decides to join the posse. (Maybe it’s also because he witnesses a gangland shooting with civilian casualties. Neither makes his character more interesting.)
Gangster Squad is subtle like a mallet thud to the head. “Bad guy shoot,” “good guy protect,” “girl nice,” “fire bad” — that kinda sums up the communication style of the movie. With Brolin and Gosling and Stone, I kept expecting layers to their character. They are the kind of actors who can give characters layers. The characters look so pretty you want there to be more to them, if for no other reason than to give you more cause to gaze at their lovely faces. But, nope, no layers, no depths, no dimension. They are paper dolls who are only surprising in their lack of a surprise. I don’t need one of them to turn out to be Keyser Soze, I just wanted for Emma Stone to be something more than vampy hair or Josh Brolin to be something more than that grimace.
Gangster Squad is apparently roughly (very roughly) based on true tales of Los Angeles history, and the most maddening part of the movie is how much more complex and interesting the story could have been with almost no effort. Early in the movie, we are introduced to Chief Parker’s driver, a young officer named Darryl Gates (Josh Pence). Gates, you may remember, was the police chief brought down by the Rodney King case. With not too much effort, the movie could have played with the idea of wild west policing and where it leads. Sure, we cheer on the gangster squad with their due-process-be-damned approach to justice but what could that turn in to? All of the pieces for the garnish of introspection that could have made this movie at little more hefty are just right there, but instead the plodding just-the-facts action steps right over them and trudges on with its beautiful to look at but disappointingly dull story that plays like a community theater version of L.A. Confidential. C
Rated R for strong violence and language. Directed by Ruben Fleischer and written by Will Beall (from a book by Paul Lieberman), Gangster Squad is an hour and 53 minutes long and distributed by Warner Bros.