Silver Screen: Gangster Squad *1/2
Gangster Squad is nominally based on famed Los Angeles police chief William Parker’s attempt to rid the force of corruption and stem the tide of East Coast mobsters seeking fortunes on post-War Hollywood’s new frontier. In reality, the movie is based on several other gangster movies, and at times barely feels authentic and individualized well enough to even qualify as third-hand. If the esteemed accountants at Nightlife didn’t calculate my paycheck by the word, I’d just say It’s The Untouchables meets L.A. Confidential, only bad, and take an early lunch.
Nick Nolte, who has done some notable research in the field with the L.A. police, plays Parker, although he makes only a few brief appearances. It’s his idea to task hardworking, straight-edge cop John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) with recruiting and leading a group of similarly incorruptible officers in a vigilante squad that would not be beholden to the rule of law.
The crew O’Mara selects is a cartoonish and conspicuously modern, multiethnic crew whose characters never threaten to expand beyond their one-sentence descriptions. Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi) is the tech-savvy nerd who oversees the wiretapping and gadgetry. Kennard (Robert Patrick) is an old-school lawman quick and true with his six-shooter. Harris (Anthony Mackie) is a jazzy black guy with a switchblade at the ready. Ramirez (Michael Peña) is a Mexican, and the movie never really delves any deeper than that.
But aces among them is the dashing Saint Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), a tough but lackadaisical ladies’ man who’s happy enough to take his graft-- that is, until, in a comically overblown scene, he watches a precocious shoeshine boy gunned down in a gangland shootout. He’s so determined to get back at notorious mob boss Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), he not only joins up with O’Mara and starts busting heads, he starts sleeping with Cohen’s showgirl squeeze (Emma Stone).
There’s really no point to Gangster Squad, except to use some familiar plot threads to stitch together a series of action sequences and justify retro fashion. The attention to wardrobe and set design contrasted with its cast of distinctly modern actors-- the young Stone and the soft-eyed Gosling seem especially ill-suited to the period setting-- only serve to make Gangster Squad look like the world’s most expensive high-school production. At one point the script makes a passing nod toward something that might be a theme or an idea when Ribisi’s family-man character wonders aloud if the brutal tactics the squad has adopted have turned the men into thugs on par with the crooks, but it’s such a hilariously tossed-off idea amid a sea of stark black-and-white morality that it can’t possibly be taken seriously. And indeed, just minutes later, we’re back to action sequences in which the good guys’ motives are reaffirmed in a storm of bullets.
Talented director Reuben Fleischer (Zombieland, Thirty Minutes or Less) doesn’t stylize the movie enough to make it anything like a unique viewing experience, but the Hollywood-glam production design and tin-eared, slipshod script gives it no shot at historical verisimilitude. L.A. Confidential writer James Ellroy was far from the first to cover this turf, but his quartet of novels, along with Curtis Hanson’s stellar film version of L.A. Confidential, set a new bar for genre material in this milieu. Gangster Squad not only acts like L.A. Confidential never happened, it also seems to exist in a world where the Christian Slater/Richard Grieco/Patrick Dempsey movie Mobsters was well-regarded and begging for a reimagining.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.