The period thriller Gangster Squad plays like an untalented 12-year-old’s imitation of Brian DePalma’s The Untouchables. Josh Brolin is the two-fisted cop who won’t follow the rules if that means turning a blind eye to injustice … and are you noticing that even my own language is clichéd, as if the picture’s lack of inspiration were a contagion? I’m sick of goddamned vigilantes, if only because they exist nowhere but onscreen and yet fuel the macho-paranoid fantasies of gun nuts in the real world.
Nick Nolte — the actor fatted, dead-eyed, reeking with self-disgust — is the one police superior who wants to take back L.A. and so prevails upon Brolin to assemble a team of … what’s the word I’m looking for? Untouchables. The once-electric Anthony Mackie channels Will Smith at his most unthreatening. In the Sean Connery part, Robert Patrick gets lost behind his walrus mustache. Young, idealistic Michael Peña wants in and Brolin lets him stay because … I can’t think of a reason except the movie needs an actor with a Spanish name to entice the Latino action crowd. The only vivid one is Giovanni Ribisi as the tech wizard, the actor’s ingrained bubble of weirdness protecting him from the fusillade of bad dialogue.
Ryan Gosling is the breezy charmer cop who won’t stick his neck out for anyone until a shoeshine boy he likes gets riddled with bullets in the course of a hit gone wrong. But his newfound commitment to justice doesn’t interfere with his seduction of gangster-moll Emma Stone (“Who’s the tomato?”), who sticks a freckled leg out the long slit of her gown and pretends to be sultry. She and Gosling had an insanely good rapport in their PG-13 sex scene in Crazy, Stupid, Love. It carries over some, but they’re flying on vapors. Why is Gosling, a good middleweight actor within striking distance of light-heavyweight parts, taking the easy money and coasting?
As L.A. mob boss Mickey Cohen, a puttied-up Sean Penn — he looks like a Dick Tracy villain — stiffens his shoulders, shrinks his eyes to tiny beads, and bellows, “I am progress! … You heard of Manifest Destiny? This is my destiny!” He could be a high school actor auditioning for a Mamet play. Somewhere Robert De Niro is thinking, When did he become such a hambone?
Mireille Enos of The Killing is Brolin’s pregnant wife, who’s an obvious target for a maddened Mickey Cohen. She can accept the cop’s low pay: “I don’t mind livin’ like Ma and Pa Kettle, I don’t need a new pair o’ shoes every week … ” It’s the stress that’s getting to her. California was supposed to be paradise, not Chicago West. And do noble ends justify ignoble means? Ribisi is troubled by the squad’s gangster-ish techniques: “Can you remind me,” he asks, “of the difference between us and them?” I can. Cohen terrorizes honest businessmen, kidnaps and enslaves women, mows down rivals and innocent bystanders alike, and gets rich off gun-running and gambling. The gangster squad works to stanch the mob boss’s reign of terror. Morally speaking, it’s pretty fucking simple.
The director, Ruben Fleischer, made the mysteriously well-liked Zombieland, which cannibalized George Romero’s zombie mythos the way Gangster Squad cannibalizes DePalma’s Chicago. There isn’t a frame in the film that looks like anything other than a third-rate movie. DePalma gave us operatic grandeur; Fleischer, dinner theater with an overqualified cast. This is a movie empowered by top agents, the ones who tell a Gosling or Stone that they need to mix crowd-pleasing, big-check studio action pictures with finer, lower budget, more serious films — and then discourage those actors from doing said serious films unless the roles are obvious Oscar bait.
Maybe the worst thing about Gangster Squad is that it isn’t egregiously terrible, that it’s competent enough to make some viewers say, “It was dumb but I enjoyed it.” Whenever that happens at a movie like this, an angel dies somewhere. There are plenty of dumb movies that leave you more alive; this one puts a hit on your soul.