Sergeant Jerry Wooters (Gosling, left) signs up to fight Californias baddest baddie, gangster Mickey Cohen (Penn, centre) in Gangster Squad.
Sergeant Jerry Wooters (Gosling, left) signs up to fight Californias baddest baddie, gangster Mickey Cohen (Penn, centre) in Gangster Squad.
Emma Stone Stone and Ryan Gosling in a scene from the movie Gangster Squad.
Emma Stone Stone and Ryan Gosling in a scene from the movie Gangster Squad.

Gangster Squad

Director: Ruben Fleischer

Cast: Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Emma Stone, Anthony Mackie

Running Time: 113 minutes

Classification: 16 LV

Rating: **

Gangster Squad is a sensationalist fantasy about how a clandestine unit of LAPD fuzz sup-posedly brought Mickey Cohen, California’s baddest gangster, to his knees in the 1940s.

Made up of synthetics rather than whole cloth, this lurid concoction superficially gets by thanks to a strong cast and jazzy period detail, but its cartoonish contrivances fail to convince and lack any of the depth, feeling or atmosphere of genre standard bearers like LA Confidential.

Warner Bros should be able to shake down reasonable short-term business with this year-opening roll of the dice.

This often-violent melodrama was meant to launch last year, but was pulled for reshoots after the Aurora, Colorado, theatre shooting tragedy. One scene, previewed in the trailer, featured gunmen firing at the audience from behind the screen of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.

Even so, the film still features plenty of imaginative barbarity, beginning in the opening scene with Cohen splitting a poor sap in two by attaching him to cars pulling in opposite directions near the Hollywoodland sign (the last four letters were removed in 1949, the year this story is set).

Former LA homicide detective Will Beall’s adaptation of veteran Los Angeles Times writer Paul Lieberman’s 2012 non-fiction book has more to do with movie lore than with what really happened, pitting a Magnificent Seven-type group of do-gooders against mobsters trying to take over the town after World War II.

More than anything, the film is marred by a connect-the-dots approach to storytelling that shoves the action from incident to incident with no thought given to dramatic layering, character complexity, political nuance or twists that might buffet the drama into unexpected realms for a time. Everything is wham right on the nose, with nary a grace note or beguiling detail to distract or seduce.

But there is incident and plenty of it, all portrayed in a brutal modern fashion rather than in a style one would associate with the noirish films of the era itself, or with the more recent tangy, nostalgic evocations of it.

Constrained from going after Cohen (Sean Penn) and his goons due to a widely corrupt police force, new LAPD chief William Parker (Nick Nolte) recruits a special squad that will operate on the QT to stop Cohen from taking over the city completely.

Unfortunately, all the characters are hardly more dimensional than caricatures, identifiable by one main trait and barely individualised beyond that.

Heading up the team is straight-arrow Sergeant John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), a war hero ready to fight the bad guys on the homefront after whipping the enemy overseas.

Signing up in due course are Sergeant Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), whose womanising skills come in handy to lure Cohen’s flame Grace Faraday (Stone) into their game; Central Avenue black beat cop Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie); old cowboy sharpshooter Max Kennard (Robert Patrick); eavesdropping technology expert Conwell Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi) and rookie Latino tag-along Navidad Ramirez (Michael Pena).

These are good actors, but other than Brolin and Gosling, they’re barely given any special moments of their own to make their mark.

While they’re getting organised, Cohen, a scrappy former boxer from the East who runs drug, prostitution and extortion rackets, is ready to make his big move: to control all the wire bookmaking west of Chicago. Half the town seems to be on his payroll, and when anyone takes a step out of line or fails him, Cohen goes berserk and has someone put a power drill through their head.

One of the film’s biggest miscalculations is to have made Cohen an undiluted psychotic with no compensating charm. Most accounts of the real guy refer to how entertaining he was, how he catered to celebrities, journalists and politicians and was courted by them in return. Apparently he kept his dark side hidden, whereas Penn plays him exclusively as a raving homicidal maniac.

O’Mara’s crew begin with ill-planned lightning assaults on Cohen, knowing it will come down to a race between their success in shutting him down and the gangster’s discovery of who’s on his tail. Some of this stuff is all right.

Gosling and Stone work well together, while Mireille Enos brings great warmth and a surprising amount of honest emotion to the potentially hackneyed part of O’Hara’s worried pregnant wife.

On a production level, considerable effort has been expended to reproduce Hollywood Boulevard and other city environs as they supposedly looked in the late 1940s; there’s plenty of local colour to feast upon, but a mood never sinks in, so preoccupied are the film-makers with hurrying along to the next showdown.

Gangster Squad is all about instant gratification, almost as much for the characters as for the viewer. The film pays corny lip service to the idea that, by using thuggish, extra-legal tactics, the off-the-grid cops are lowering themselves to the same level as the gangsters they are pursuing. – Hollywood Reporter