The movie is called Gangster Squad but it’s so inept that I kept thinking of Police Squad! — the 1980s spoof TV show that gave us the stone-faced detective Frank Drebin and led to the Naked Gun movies.
Gangster Squad stars a top cast — Ryan Gosling and Josh Brolin as cops trying to break up a criminal racket, Emma Stone as Gosling’s girl, and Sean Penn as vicious gangster and ex-boxer Mickey Cohen. All of them are terrible, but special mention must be made of Penn’s performance as the lethal Cohen, who rules the underworld and owns the police in 1949 Los Angeles. Penn, who for reasons I couldn’t fathom plays the part under a fake nose and a prosthetic brow that make him look like Herman Munster, does a piece of cartoonish overacting, all snarls and shouts, that would have embarrassed the cast of the 1960s Batman.
Moreover, the action of Gangster Squad is so ludicrous that you half expect “Ker-BLAM!” and “BIFF!” to pop up in quotation balloons on the screen. Brolin plays Sgt. John O’Mara, a tough-as-nails cop who accepts an assignment from his grizzled boss (Nick Nolte) to make war on Cohen’s crime outfit. The Sarge isn’t expected to make arrests, though: Cohen has so many cops on his payroll that that would be a waste of time. Sarge’s brief is to spend the movie destroying Cohen’s property and generally terrifying his minions until the final showdown.
To do so, Sarge must first assemble an all-star team of clean cops, and here the movie turns into a shoddy replica of The Untouchables. The director, Ruben Fleischer, who had a hit with Zombieland three years ago even though the film seemed to rush its ending, this time rushes the whole movie, scarcely giving any shadings to any character as he races ahead to the next hectic shootout or explosion. Sarge’s team is so hastily assembled that it seems almost random.
First to join is a cynical cop named Wooters (Ryan Gosling) O’Mara seems to pick because the two recently bumped into each other at the station. Then O’Mara picks up a sharpshooter (Robert Patrick), an outcast (Michael Pena), and an all-purpose geek (Giovanni Ribisi) who does things like tap phone lines. So little effort is put into establishing these characters that they essentially merge into a single indistinguishable blob of rough justice. Sarge’s equally blurry wife Connie (Mireille Enos) who, in one scene, is telling Sarge to keep his head down and avoid confrontations with any gangsters, in the next scene dives into the team-building process and instantly becomes an expert on spotting honest cops simply by looking at their files.
Most of the film is a demented rush from one ridiculous action scene to the next. In the early going O’Mara invades a flophouse to free an innocent girl who is about to be raped and in the process apparently randomly kills two guys who try to stop him in the elevator on the way up (it’s actually not clear what happens due to the sloppy editing that characterizes the whole film). You would think that, even in 1949 L.A., it might be inconvenient for a cop to be involved in a killing (wouldn’t there be paperwork, at least?), but Sarge and his team of destroyers keep mowing through the city with utter impunity until the geeky Ribisi character asks, not unreasonably, “Can you remind me of the difference between us and them?”
It’s tempting to say the female characters are an afterthought but that would be misleading because all of the characters seem to be afterthoughts. Broslin is a generic tough guy who effortlessly beats up gangs of attackers who spring on him everywhere; Gosling is exactly the same. Stone is the most boring femme fatale imaginable as she allows herself to be picked up by Gosling’s character, who immediately proposes to take her to bed, in front of Cohen, her date. (Again, the editing is so poor we don’t know whether Cohen is watching the other two flirt at the bar even though he can’t be far away.) Cohen is supposedly insanely jealous and protective of her, yet he seems to forget about the lady for a large portion of the movie as she practically moves in with the cop.
Trying to give a James Ellroy, L.A. Confidential feel to this haphazard story, the screenplay heaves with mannered dialogue that is meant to sound clever and Chandleresque but mostly sounds flat, if not downright weird. Told that Mickey Cohen is on the warpath while he’s flirting with his girl, a cop says, “Warpath? Looks like he’s on the gimmee-some-more-path.” Ouch, I think that line could have been on Sex and the City. When Stone says, “I think I’ll go bend my elbow while you guys bend your ears,” you want to tell her to take that line back to the shop for repairs. Having a conversation is not the same thing as bending ears.
Gangster Squad arrives in theaters doubly cursed; Warner Bros. was planning to release it over Labor Day weekend, traditionally a time to dump stinkers when no one is paying attention to movies anyway, but the film originally contained a climactic movie-theater shooting scene, and after the summer multiplex massacre in Aurora, Colo., the studio hauled the talent back in for reshoots. The suits should have taken the opportunity to fire the director and start over.
More current releases reviewed by John Boot at PJ Lifestyle: