“Gangster Squad” starts with an amazing true story about Los Angeles police detectives taking down a notorious mobster and processes it down to a simplistic cops-versus-villains melodrama. This was a story worthy of grand, “L.A. Confidential”-style film noir that winds up shooting blanks.
Missed opportunities abound, including a cast that looks like it shouldn't fall short in any set of circumstances and director Ruben Fleischer, whose previous films, “Zombieland” and “30 Minutes or Less,” were fueled by a never-flagging supply of energy and wit. But in “Gangster Squad,” the ingredients just never gel together.
Just imagine what this could have been: Sgt. John O'Mara (Josh Brolin) is the leader of an off-the-books division of the Los Angeles Police Department known as the Gangster Squad, a group of square-peg detectives assembled in the late 1940s to take down Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), the Chicago Outfit hoodlum who is running most of the bookmaking and organized crime in Southern California. O'Mara puts together a dream team, including gunslinger Max Kennard (Robert Patrick), surveillance expert Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi) and wild-card Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), who takes a shine to Cohen's moll, Grace Faraday (Emma Stone).
Yes, “Gangster Squad” is filled to its snap-brimmed hat with possibilities for greatness, and the film certainly achieves a romantic vision of post-World War II Los Angeles, complete with period landmarks such as Slapsy Maxie's nightclub and a re-creation of the original “Hollywoodland” sign. But Fleischer's sense of style is muted in “Gangster Squad” when everything about his previous two films suggested an unhinged mastery of action. Even players like Stone and Michael Pena, scene stealers from Fleischer's earlier projects, are given little to do.
As for Penn's Mickey Cohen, he almost seems like he's been cobbled into the scenes from another movie — his grotesque facial prosthetics and outsized acting make Cohen feel like a “Dick Tracy” villain. In real life, Cohen looked a lot more like Bob Hoskins in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” and the Gangster Squad's pursuit of the man lasted over a decade. This was all detailed richly in the source material, a seven-part 2008 Los Angeles Times series called “L.A. Noir: Tales from the Gangster Squad.” But in Fleischer and screenwriter Will Beall's version, the battle is seemingly over in months and what little substance was left in the final film evaporates. For a film that has dodged controversy for its stylized violence, “Gangster Squad” feels bloodless.
— George Lang