With its gleaming roadsters, sexy dames and swanky nightspots, “Gangster Squad” is clearly meant to summon fond memories of post-WWII-era noir films, not to mention more recent retro valentines like “Chinatown” and “L.A. Confidential.” But you’ll be forgiven for thinking that you’re watching “The Untouchables II.”
Like David Mamet and Brian De Palma’s reboot of the classic crimebuster TV show, this new movie offers a stalwart cop with a devoted, red-headed wife, putting together a crew of renegade cops (including an old-timer and a bespectacled nerd) to take down a powerful and sadistic mobster played by a Method-fueled scenery chewer. Back then, it was Kevin Costner, Patricia Clarkson, Sean Connery, Charles Martin Smith and Robert DeNiro; this time around, we get Josh Brolin, Mireille Enos, Robert Patrick, Giovanni Ribisi and Sean Penn. The players are different, but the game’s the same.
Penn plays ruthless ex-boxer Mickey Cohen, who’s already running the drug and prostitution rackets of late-’40s L.A.; armed with his own policemen and judges, he’s about to take over all west-coast bookmaking operations, which would make him completely invulnerable. Before that can happen, LAPD chief William Parker (Nick Nolte) decides to assemble a squadron of clean cops who will declare war on Cohen’s empire.
Chosen to head up the group is John O’Mara (Brolin), who opens the movie by rescuing a young innocent from one of Cohen’s pimps and liberating a building full of women who were being doped up on their way to work in the kingpin’s brothels. With the help of his smart and devoted wife Connie (Enos) — and kudos to Will Beall’s script, based on the book by Paul Lieberman, for not making this character the usual guilt-inducing albatross — O’Mara picks his team.
Joining O’Mara on his quest are grizzled sharp-shooter Max (Patrick), downtown flatfoot Coleman (Anthony Mackie, whose character we first see throwing a knife into the hand of a drug dealer mid-transaction), tag-along Navidad (Michael Peña), tactician and surveillance expert Conway (Ribisi) and cynical ladies’ man Jerry (Ryan Gosling), whose current lady Grace (Emma Stone) also happens to be Cohen’s girlfriend.
Director Ruben Fleischer (whose previous features include the inventive “Zombieland” and the dreadful “30 Minutes or Less”) loves his period detail, but he’s not afraid to spill gore on the shiny shoes. Round after round of ammo gets fired (the heroes have a much better hit rate than the villains, of course), unfortunate underlings get burned alive or drilled in the face or torn apart by the era’s huge cars, and there’s even one montage where the squad’s spree of violence against Cohen’s goons and his dens of vice is practically staged like a musical number.
If all of “Gangster Squad” delivered on that level, it would be easy to forgive the derivativeness that hounds it throughout, but there are other problems. There’s a very specific rhythm to the 1940s movie-patter that the filmmakers have chosen to make the default speaking pattern of everyone in the film, and some nail it better than others.
Brolin, Penn and Enos would have been right at home exchanging barbs with the leads in “Double Indemnity,” but Gosling and Stone (whose scenes together were the highlights of “Crazy, Stupid, Love”) don’t quite speak-a the jive. They’re exceedingly talented film actors, but they’re the only ones here who feel like time travelers from the 21st century.
Still, if you don’t mind a little blood spattering your glossy post-war reveries, “Gangster Squad” never lets up on its momentum, often injecting surprising humor or character moments into an otherwise by-the-numbers story. And if nothing else, it’s way better than you’d expect any movie released by a major studio in January would ever be.