The late film critic Gene Siskel once pondered if the movie he was reviewing was more interesting than a documentary would be of the same actors having lunch together. In the case of “Gangster Squad,” the answer is a definitive, resounding “no.” This is lazy, predictable, clichéd filmmaking with nary a surprise nor original idea to be had. And with this star-studded cast, the disappointment is especially deep.
The setting is 1949 Los Angeles. Gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) has cops, judges and other powers-that-be in his back pocket. Police Chief William Parker (Nick Nolte) has had enough, so he empowers righteous detective John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) to work outside the law and take the mobster down.
O’Mara’s pregnant wife Connie (Mirielle Enos) helps him assemble a team: Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), who happens to be having an affair with Mickey’s girlfriend, Grace Faraday (Emma Stone); street-smart Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie); sharpshooter Max Kennard (Robert Patrick) and his protégé, Navidad Ramirez (Michael Pena); and tech-savvy Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi).
Will the team be successful? Will a few members of the team go down in the process? Nothing is worse than a drama in which you see everything coming and want it to happen already so the movie can be over. The story, written by Will Beall and based on Paul Lieberman’s book of the same name, also stoops to typical clichés and faux personal realizations. For example: Jerry’s reason for joining the squad — the-wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time death of a shoeshine boy (Austin Abrams) — feels half-hearted, like a forced, desperate effort to imbue emotion when it’s not needed.
Director Ruben Fleischer (“Zombieland”) doesn’t contribute any form of creativity, except perhaps his feedback on the strong production and costume designs, which look and feel authentic. Worse, his whole background is doing comedies, which might be why the tone of “Gangster Squad” feels off all the way through. There are moments of poor, obviously fake visual effects in the beginning that suggest a campy feel, but far too much of the story is oh-so-serious, putting us between lighthearted and grim. We don’t know how to view this.
The cast is similarly confused and thereby contributes to this problem. Penn stops just short of completely over-the-top hamming it up, though he comes close a number of times. In contrast, Brolin looks like a stoic sourpuss throughout, and Gosling, immensely talented as he is, gives Jerry a soft-spoken, almost effeminate voice that in no way befits the toughness of his character. And someone needs to remind Stone she’s a big-time movie star who shouldn’t be relegated to such thankless supporting roles. Worse, she’s entirely wrong for Grace, who’s supposed to be sultry and seductive. Stone is not these things — she’s cute and adorable, but sexiness does not come naturally to her.
The film was originally scheduled for a Sept. 7 release. Following the Aurora, Colo., shootings in July, it was delayed for a rewrite and reshoot of a massacre scene set inside a movie theater. The delay certainly didn’t help the production.
“Gangster Squad” is allegedly based on true events, but a quick look at the facts shows a complete neglect of reality. No matter, though: The movie either works on its own or it doesn’t. And it absolutely, positively doesn’t.