Evoking the sensibilities of Brian De Palma’s classic “The Untouchables” or Curtis Hanson’s “L.A. Confidential” and maybe even Sergio Leone’s masterpiece “Once Upon A Time in America,” “Gangster Squad” shares the same time and space with these films. However, this noir thriller about the mob is devastatingly confused as to the kind of film it wants to be — is it supposed to be funny? Is it supposed to be dark? Is it supposed to reflect on the nature of violence? Is it supposed to be glamorously nostalgic? It’s as if the film wants to be all of the above but it ends up being a jack of all trades and a master of none.
It is 1949, Los Angeles. World War II is over and a lot of men now back home feel at a loss as the heydays of heroism are over. The town is glitzy and glamorous, but it’s all on the surface since the gloss is subverted by the Chicago mob that’s running the town. Ex-boxer and mobster Mickey Cohen (a buffed up Sean Penn) has taken over the Jewish mafia and is also keen to take over the entire West Coast with his dirty business. Cohen has already bought most of the cops in town but there is one man who is adamant in stopping him: Chief of Police Parker (Nick Nolte), who hires the straight arrow sergeant John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) to gather up a team of marginal cops for an off-the-record operation.
O’Mara gathers on his side the playboy sergeant Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling, who channels a gooey-eyed performance with an unnecessary edge of coyness), Officer Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi, much too underused) as the techy intelligence specialist, Officer Kenard (Robert Patrick) an ex-cowboy who is the gun specialist, his sidekick Ramirez (Michael Pena) as the token Latino and also Officer Harris (Anthony Mackie) as the token African-American. With the exception of O’Mara and Wooters, none of the other team members have any character arc except for the functions that they are required by this very stereotype-ridden screenplay written by Will Beal and adapted from the best-selling novel of Paul Lieberman.
O’Mara has a pregnant wife played by Mireille Enos of the TV show “The Killing,” who does not condone his quest for morality while Wooters is in trouble because he has an extracurricular romance going on with femme fatale Grace (Emma Stone), who also happens to be Cohen’s mistress. It’s too bad that the two lovebirds can’t exactly achieve the wonderful screen chemistry that they had in the romantic comedy “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” because at least there would have been something to truly remember from this film.
Director Fleisher relays a hoard of scenes including fist fights, gun fights, automatic weaponry battles and car chases which comprise most of the film. The beginning montage sequences in which the gangster squad starts raining fire on the mob is an homage to the aesthetics of cinematic violence that doesn’t quite fulfill its purpose except for, perhaps, satisfying an audience of adolescent males who have a weakness for watching people being shredded to bits onscreen, whether it be movies or video games. Note that the release of the film was postponed after the shooting incident in Colorado in which a young man murdered a theater full of people watching “The Dark Knight.”
Now the gist of the matter is that the filmmakers are trying to show and criticize the gangster squad; as events unfold, the squad pretty much adopts the same violent methods and vigilante style of the mob that they are trying to defeat. Naturally, most gangster thrillers try to make this point by insinuating that the cops and gangsters are not much different from each other, but the problem in “Gangster Squad” is that this is so didactically thrown at viewers’ faces through blunt and cheesy dialogue that the effect becomes too cliché and banal. The voiceover by Brolin, a conventional element of the genre, takes itself too seriously and starts sounding too abundantly dramatic for its own good and thus sabotages all the endeavors in trying to create the much-loved rough and rusty cynicism required in such a film.
If you are in dire need of an action flick, do see “Gangster Squad,” but limit your expectations when it comes to your nostalgia for multi-layered 1940s La-La Land — the shiny decoration is right there but the oomph is missing.