It’s Los Angeles in 1949. Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) is an officer that operates outside the law. But don’t get the wrong idea. He’s a good guy, an honest cop. He merely acts illegally in order to serve justice every now and then. That’s especially true when it comes to apprehending Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), an infamous hoodlum that has become the most powerful figure in the Jewish mafia. His rise is unstoppable due in part to controlling the majority of law enforcement with bribes. O’Mara is placed in charge of a special police unit devoted to putting an end to Cohen’s reign in the criminal underworld. The gangster squad is an elite team of incorruptible cops, but it’s obviously an opportunity to hire a lot of acting talent as well: Ryan Gosling, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, Michael Peña and Robert Patrick comprise this noble team. They talk and act like stock characters (the black guy, the nerd, the Mexican, the old guy) from 2013 traveled back in time. Oh and what would any period detective drama be without a sexy dame so Emma Stone is on hand as the notorious mobster’s girl, who falls for Ryan Gosling (natch) because, uh well he lit her cigarette in a nightclub of course.
Gangster Squad has all the depth of a rain puddle. There’s no denying that it looks incredible. 1940s Los Angeles is recreated with stylish color and finesse. The production design is first rate and if that were all that mattered, this movie would earn 5 stars. However the narrative unfolds like a two-bit crime thriller. Given Sean Penn’s ugly prosthetics and accent he seems to be channeling Al Pacino in Dick Tracy. In fact I thought of Dick Tracy on more than one occasion while watching this. Warren Beatty’s far superior film was based on a comic book so its two dimensional facade worked in its favor. Here the artificiality works against the story. Sadly, the writing is hopelessly laughable. I frequently chuckled at dialogue that in retrospect was clearly meant to be serious. My favorite is when Police Chief Bill Parker (Nick Nolte) looks up from a newspaper with a huge headline in bold type calling for the police chiefs resignation and then loudly announcing “They’re calling for my resignation!“ You don’t say?! Oh and count how many times a character breaks/throws something in a fit of rage. If renting with friends at home, the number of occurrences would make a great drinking game. On second thought, that’s a better idea. Just wait for the DVD/Blu-ray. Spending $10 to view this in a theater would be a crime.