Gangster Squad

Originally set for release back in September, Gangster Squad was pushed to January in the wake of the Aurora tragedy; a particularly violent scene set in a movie theater necessitated weeks of re-shoots.

If only they’d used the extra time to also give the script a major overhaul.

Going in, you’d think most of the pieces are in place. The top-drawer cast includes Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, and Sean Penn. And the man behind the camera is Ruben Fleischer, whose 2009 debut Zombieland was among the best and most creative of the year.

Despite all it has going for it, though, Gangster Squad ends up feeling like a too-slick mashup of The Untouchables and L.A. Confidential, with all the gratuitous blood of a Tarantino film and none of the drama or intelligence.

Set in 1949, Gangster Squad chronicles an off-the-books LAPD unit’s quest to bring down mob boss Mickey Cohen (Penn). The band of misfits is properly diverse, both in ethnicity and skill set; between the old-time gunslinger, the Mexican greenhorn, the black street cop with connections, and the pretty boy with a chip on his shoulder, all the bases are covered. And they’re all brought together by Sergeant John O’Mara (Brolin), a square-jawed, no-nonsense tough guy.

The script by first-timer Will Beall, based on the nonfiction book by Paul Lieberman, is so completely derivative you may find yourself wondering how it was ever greenlit. It’s a bit mind-boggling to think some studio exec read it and happily thought, “It’s as if The Untouchables was written at a high school level! Good to go!”

While most of the blame for Gangster Squad‘s misgivings rests squarely on the shoulders of Beall, Fleischer is culpable, too. The herky-jerky pace keeps bouncing between meditative yawn and full-bore action, and though he went to great pains to re-create 1940s Hollywoodland, the whole thing ends up feeling like a museum exhibit or a theme park attraction. Everyone’s clothes look fresh from the costume shop, every house is pristine, and every office is spotless. There’s not an ounce of character in any set piece.

Given the resumés and established talent of the cast, you would think Gangster Squad would emerge from the chill of winter as a classic-feeling, noir flick driven by stellar performances. But even a handful of today’s best actors doing solid work (save Penn’s wildly over-the-top take on Cohen, which seems more in line with 1990’s lampoonish Dick Tracy) can make up for the lackluster and lazy script.

Do yourself a favor, and dust off Chinatown instead.

2/5 stars