Gangster Squad is less a movie than a costume party run amok. Set in a late-’40s Los Angeles painted in cartoon colours rather than noir shadows, it is a hectic jumble of fedoras and zoot suits, stockings and cigarettes, and red femme-fatale dresses. The accessories of choice are guns of various calibers and styles, deployed to drown out — or perhaps to emphasise — knucklehead dialogue and inept storytelling.
The script, by Will Beall (and based on a book by Paul Lieberman), is flecked with enough period idioms to suggest a Google Docs search through some of the writings of Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane. “Who’s the tomato?” asks Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) when he spies a beautiful woman in the company of a notorious crime boss. The produce in question is Grace Faraday, played by Emma Stone, who falls hard for Jerry’s patter, even though he is a member of the LAPD, and she is the moll of Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), a vicious former boxer with an expanding criminal empire.
Opposing Mickey’s rise is the titular Gangster Squad, a secret police posse under the command of Sgt. John ’Mara (Josh Brolin). ’Mara, a straight arrow combat veteran with an anxious wife (Mireille Enos) and a baby boomer on the way, lays down a ponderous chunk of voice-over before settling down to assemble his team, which has the structure of a classic combat movie platoon.
Cohen is a real figure in the lurid annals of the Southern California underworld, and the tale of his rise and fall is ripe with nasty potential. The old-time Los Angeles of corrupt cops, conniving villains and melancholy sexpots may be familiar pop-culture territory — it’s Chinatown and also LA Confidential, Devil With a Blue Dress and the collected works of James Ellroy — but it is also a storehouse of durably knotty themes. In the movie-fed, noir-tinged American imagination, this is a city where sex, power, money and celebrity entwine and collide, where social dysfunction and psychological disorder fester amid the stucco and the jacaranda.
None of which seems to interest Ruben Fleischer, the director of Gangster Squad, a barrage of action sequences as empty as a spent shell casing. His first feature, Zombieland, was a half-witty genre parody. This one might be described as genre zombie-ism: the hysterical, brainless animation of dead cliches reduced to purposeless, compulsive killing. Too self-serious to succeed as pastiche, it has no reason for being beyond the parasitic urge to feed on the memories of other, better movies.
And also, apparently, to give a cast of first-rate actors the chance to earn some money trying out funny voices and suppressing whatever sense of nuance they might possess. Gangster Squad would have been more fun as an animated feature, with fanciful animals in the principal roles. Instead of enduring Penn’s quacking, duck-faced performance, we might have at least been able to enjoy Mickey Cohen imagined as an actual duck. The growly, jowly ’Mara is a natural canine, somewhere between McGruff and Offissa Pupp; Gosling and Stone would make a fine pair of purring kitty cats; and Nick Nolte’s police commissioner is pure bullfrog.
Gangster squad (a)
Director: Ruben Fleischer
Cast: Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Nick Nolte, Giovanni Ribisi, Michael Pena
Running time: 113 minutes