1 out of 4 stars
Yanked from last fall because of a scene (now deleted) too closely resembling the movie theater shooting incident in Aurora, Colo., "Gangster Squad" initially seemed to be unfairly sentenced to the wasteland of early winter simply because of bad timing. With a primo cast and a premise so excitingly ripe, any release date change would matter little in the great scheme of things. It was too great to fail. After watching it, it will be easy to label it as just another inevitable cold-weather flop.
A bloody, sloppy, misguided action-adventure that totally misses the hard-boiled, noir air it wishes so desperately to evoke, "Gangster Squad" is bone-crushingly simple; riddled with mob flick cliches that rip off nearly a dozen relatively recent crime thrillers. It's also not the least bit afraid to lift, verbatim, lines from other films and reducing its characters to laughable caricatures.
As with many productions of this ilk, "Gangster Squad" takes a nonfictional character (in this case Mickey Cohen played by Sean Penn), tosses in the misleading "based on a true story" opening disclaimer and delivers a story that bears little resemblance to actual history.
The one-note Josh Brolin stars as John O'Mara, a WWII veteran and one of only a handful of honest detectives ferreting out graft and disorder in late '40s Los Angeles. Determined to ignore his brethren's crooked status quo, the bulldog O'Mara finds a kindred spirit in police chief Parker (Nick Nolte) who offers him a mandate, a nod and a wink and turns a blind eye to the thug-like methods required that will be required by O'Mara to bring Cohen to his knees.
Having already been established as the Elliott Ness character from "The Untouchables," O'Mara (with heavy input from his plucky, pregnant wife) handpicks four other liked-minded underlings. There's the sagely Sean Connery-like veteran (Robert Patrick), a bookish geek (Giovanni Ribisi) and an Andy Garcia composite ethnic minority (the black Anthony Mackie and the Latin Michael Pena). Providing the late-arriving wild card is Ryan Gosling as a smooth-talking, generally laid-back cohort of O'Mara's whose blood starts to boil after he witnesses the death of a child during a botched hit.
Gosling's "Crazy Stupid Love" co-star Emma Stone reprises the role of his love interest here as the wishbone between he and Cohen. A dolled-up mob moll with a cigarette and booze-soaked husky voice draped with an array of slinky evening dresses, Stone's is the only character with anything interesting to do beyond looking fashionable, spouting recycled one-liners and/or busting heads. The torn-between-two-lovers sub-plot works well for a while and resurfaces at the end but is mostly canceled out by some of the most graphic and unnecessary screen violence of any period crime drama on record.
Opening with a man being torn in half by a set of chains and two cars, "Gangster Squad" unfailingly qualifies as gratuitous in the worst possible way. Perhaps realizing the screenplay by Will Beall lacked anything resembling authentic dramatic tension, director Ruben Fleischer appears determined to deflect the audience's attention away from the narrative by testing its cringe levels as well as its most basic understandings of physics and probability.
More so than perhaps any film in modern history, "Gangster Squad" severely plays fast and loose with its depiction of gunfire, so much so that it looks more like a live-action cartoon than thoughtful drama. In practically every scene, members of Cohen's gang (or others not working with O'Mara) take dead aim at the good guys -- most of the time with Thompson automatic submachine guns -- and miss with almost every shot. Conversely, O'Mara's crew is able to hit -- usually with six-shooters and shotguns from long distances -- everything. Not a lick of any of it is remotely likely or plausible.
Almost as hard to fathom is that the gathering of so much proven onscreen talent could result in such a horrendously realized, amateurishly executed production. It's way too soon in 2013 to call it the worst film of the year but there will be few that will follow in its wake that could ever have wasted such a talented cast or blown such a golden opportunity. (Warner Bros.)