“Gangster Squad” may be loosely based on truth – the takedown of notorious Los Angeles crime lord Mickey Cohen 60 years ago – but it feels about as real as a mob-themed costume party. At least there’s a certain sport in counting how many neo-noir cliches director Ruben Fleischer (“Zombieland,” “30 Minutes or Less”) can get his all-star cast to engage in over the course of nearly two hours.
Sean Penn, trapped underneath a layer of unconvincing makeup that makes him look more like a Batman or Dick Tracy villain, is Cohen, the man who ruled the L.A. underworld in the late ’40s. He’s out to set up the biggest illicit gambling operation on the West Coast and since he’s eliminated all of his criminal competition and has much of the police force in his pocket, who’s going to tell him no?
Enter the LAPD’s mid-century modern version of the Justice League, a super-secret crew put together by police chief William Parker (Nick Nolte) to smash Cohen’s operations. There’s square-jawed war hero Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), his best pal and cynical ladies’ man Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), switchblade-wielding street cop Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie), wiretap expert Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi), master marksman Max Kennard (Robert Patrick) and energetic new detective Navidad Ramirez (Michael Peña). That they just happen to look stylishly natty in their fedoras and suits while drinking Nehi sodas or, in the case of Wooters, seducing Cohen’s sexy moll, Grace (Emma Stone), just makes them all radiate even more of an aura of crime-fighting cool.
Working from a script by Will Beall (which in turn is based on a non-fiction book, “Gangster Squad,” by Paul Lieberman), Fleischer keeps things moving briskly so viewers don’t have too much time to ponder why they should be watching “L.A. Confidential,” “The Untouchables,” or the master work “Chinatown” again instead of this knockoff. It helps that “Gangster” looks ravishing (thanks to cinematographer Dion Beebe, the director of photography on the “Miami Vice” movie) as Fleischer indulges every one of his Raymond Chandler fantasies.
The Hollywoodland sign, the Los Angeles Observatory, South-Central’s Central Avenue, and, of course, Chinatown all make a dutiful appearance as well as lesser-known landmarks like Slapsy Maxie’s Hollywood nightclub and the Garden of Allah apartments, where Chandler and other luminaries once lived. There’s big-band music, squads of vintage cars, a touch of “Dragnet”-style narration, and when Wooters wants to know who Grace is after first spying her across a crowded room, he asks a friend in typical hard-boiled fashion, “Who’s the tomato?”
Yet, for all of that, emotional resonance and any sense of real danger are about as thin as an L.A. snowfall. Despite the constant barrage of gunfire, the bad guys can’t hit the side of a Studebaker and there’s absolutely no chemistry between Stone and Gosling (who were paired in “Crazy, Stupid, Love” to much better effect). Everyone involved, including Penn, seems to be playing dress-up.
The only moment where you realize this is indeed about real people is when Chief Parker’s assistant is introduced as Darryl Gates, the controversial LAPD inspector and, later, chief who did indeed begin his career working for Parker. Anyone who lived in L.A. in the late 20th century is aware of what would become of Gates (who was ousted in the’90s in the wake of the riots following the Rodney King beating and subsequent trial of the cops who did it) and how the LAPD’s tarnished reputation wouldn’t be scrubbed clean with the downfall of Cohen.
Even though the saga of L.A. corruption has been the fodder for transcendent fiction for generations, there’s still a great movie to be made from such colorful source material. But the biggest crime in “Gangster Squad” is that it doesn’t even come close.
2 stars (out of 5)
R (strong violence and strong language); 113 minutes