“Gangster Squad” is a western masquerading as a gangster movie. It takes place in the Wild West — a virtually lawless 1949 Los Angeles — and some very bad dudes hold the town hostage. All the law can do is round up a bunch of good guys willing to be as bad as the bad guys and then run ’em out of town.
As these things go, this Warner Bros. production has an unusually starry cast and striking look with vintage cars and glistening period effects that pop off the screen. Plus the late ’40s is a rich era in the city’s history, ripe for a “Chinatown”-like examination of corruption and street bravery.
Yet director Ruben Fleischer and screenwriter Will Beall have chosen to take the most direct route to action thrills with cartoonish characters, outlandish violence and nary a moment of psychology or subtlety in its depiction of figures both real and imagined.
Everything is painted in broad strokes of black and white even when the opportunity existed for a more nuanced approach.
The tommy-gun movie stars Sean Penn as mobster Mickey Cohen, who actually did make a mockery of the law for 15 years in Southern California, as well as Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, Michael Peña and Robert Patrick as the cops who hide their badges to deal in like manner with the Brooklyn-born intruder.
There’s a slip of history here as the movie is based on a book by veteran L.A. Times writer Paul Lieberman, who thoroughly researched the era and its bloody legacy. But it gets so mixed up in action fantasy (Warner Bros. being the original home of the gangster movie) that it isn’t worth trying to sift the few grains of historical wheat from the chaff of fiction here.
Most annoying for me, as a native Angeleno, is the glorification of the late LAPD Chief William Parker. The man may well have run the mob out of town —using vastly illegal means to do so, if this movie is to be believed — but he also went on to form a racist paramilitary police force that treated the city as an occupying army.
The newly appointed chief is played by Nick Nolte, who struts through his few scenes with an arrogance that certainly befits Parker. But this movie acts like this is a good thing.
For a much smarter fictional view of that era, look over the many crime novels by James Ellroy about that era including “L.A. Confidential” made justly famous by Curtis Hanson’s Oscar-winning movie version.
One thing I do like about this movie is that its hero, Sgt. John O’Mara (Brolin), head of the goon — sorry, gangster — squad is a bit thick. You don’t often get movies where the good guy is lacking in gray matter.
Indeed the movie has him so lacking in smarts that his wife (a compelling performance by Mireille Enos) insists on picking his squad for him, not trusting her husband’s life to his own judgments about men.
The hardest to recruit for the anti-Cohen task force is Gosling’s Sgt. Jerry Wooters. He’s a womanizing cynic who understands how the town works and is willing to live and let live. That is until Cohen’s henchmen cut down his favorite shoeshine boy.
(In real life Wooters apparently befriended a rival of Cohen as a means to neutralize the gangster, a subtle tactic banned from a flick so elemental as this.)
Jerry is clearly the brains only he rarely exercises them. Instead he launches into a torrid affair with Cohen’s mistress — yeah, right, that’s smart — who is played by Emma Stone, normally a good actress but cut adrift here without method or motive to explain anything she does.
Patrick and Peña play intriguing characters, the former a cowboy gunslinger with a Wyatt Earp mustache and the latter his protege, a duo that serves to enforce the western motifs that run rampant throughout the movie.
Mackie plays a knife-throwing black cop from Central Avenue who joins the Gangster Squad — in Parker’s LAPD? — while Ribisi is the espionage expert from World War II who can bug anyplace, even Cohen’s home. If by this time you’re thinking “The Magnificent Seven” crossed with “The Untouchables,” you just about got the vibe the filmmakers hope for but never come close to achieving.
Instead the movie settles into a series of ill-thought out attacks by the squad against Cohen interests and the gangster’s retaliations against others who he believes are responsible but aren’t.
It’s a long while before the penny drops and Cohen realizes he’s up against a bunch of cops operating off the grid.
The film runs the gamut in grisly assaults from a body being torn in half by cars going in opposite directions to a drill into a skull and a hand severed in an elevator. All part of a day’s work in 1949 L.A.
Penn does his own violence to the legacy of Cohen, over playing him as mad psychopath in every scene where in fact the gangster loved to party with stars and celebrities as well as crooked judges and they returned the favor. No one would be caught dead with this jerk.
The actors on the squad other than Brolin and Gosling are similarly one-note as the movie never bothers to bring their characters into any kind of dramatic play beyond their single skills.
Production designer Maher Ahmad’s sets and the matte shots and CGI do a remarkable job of evoking old L.A. while the movie uses iconic buildings such as the City Hall well. Dion Beebe’s (“Memoirs of a Geisha”) cinematography catches just the right flesh tones and muted colors of ’50s era movies.
Alas the nourish mood the behind-the-scenes personnel evoke gets shattered in nearly every sequence by pushing shoot-outs and sensationalism onto the screen in place of a more complex and compelling journey into the past.
Opens: January 11, 2013 (Warner Bros.)
Production companies: Warner Bros. Pictures presents in association with Village Roadshow Pictures a Lin Pictures/Kevin McCormick production
Cast: Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Nick Nolte, Emma Stone, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, Michael Peña, Robert Patrick, Mireille Enos
Director: Ruben Fleischer
Screenwriter: Will Beall
Based on the book by: Paul Lieberman
Producers: Dan Lin, Kevin McCormick, Michael Tadross
Executive producers: Ruben Fleischer, Paul Lieberman, Bruce Berman
Director of photography: Dion Beebe
Production designer: Maher Ahmad
Music: Steve Jablonsky
Costume designer: Mary Zophres
Editor: Alan Baumgarten, James Herbert
R rating, 113 minutes