Grade: B- (RENT IT)
BY THE TIME the members of the Gangster Squad toast to their crime-fighting conquests in postwar Los Angeles, mobster Mickey Cohen is already red-in-the-face and shouting that they’ll never take him down. Cohen, the legendary gangster who went west from his native Chicago to scope out Bugsy Siegel, is played by a pruned Sean Penn. This is a performer who normally avoids uni-dimensional characters, but here, as a straight-up evil thug, he is crime incarnate. “Gangster Squad” is indebted to Penn and his cast-mates, but it’s derivative in every way of a whole squad of other – make that, better – genre greats like “LA Confidential” and “Chinatown.”
Nevertheless, writer Will Beall, in an adaptation of “Gangster Squad: Cover Cops, the Mob, and the Battle for Los Angeles” by reporter Paul Lieberman, arms Penn’s Cohen with tommy-guns and zippy one-liners like “That’s wasn’t murder; it was progress” and “L.A. belongs to Mickey Cohen.” Not if Sergeant John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) can help it. Despite his pregnant wife’s protestations, he forms a group that Cohen derisively nicknamed the “Stupidity Squad.” Here, it’s comprised of Harris (Anthony Mackie), gun-slinger Kennard (Robert Patrick), Ramirez (Michael Peña), and techie Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi). Ribisi is usually the chameleon who brings unique voices to supporting roles, as he did in last year’s “Contraband,” but in “Gangster Squad,” Ryan Gosling (as Sgt. Jerry Wooters) regresses to the pitch of his pubescence for some odd reason. As Cohen’s girlfriend, Grace (Emma Stone) is less concerned with Wooters’ voice than she is with his looks. Gosling and Stone only recently romped in “Crazy Stupid Love,” but the results were neither lovely nor crazy (for the latter, see “Blue Valentine”). These are two actors too keenly aware of their own allure to mix and melt in the way real chemistry on screen requires, so it’s a mystery why they’re reunited (and so soon).
That’s the work of Rubert (“Zombieland”) Fleischer whose “Gangster Squad” opens with a grizzly gangland murder that will make you avert your eyes. (Think of being snapped in half like a human biscotti as two cars pull you apart – oh, and there are coyotes around to eat your innards.) Then, in keeping with the conventionality of “Gangster Squad,” Fleischer’s film ends with a hero hugging his wife and infant son on a beach in Southern California. Order, family, justice have been restored: The End. It’s this turn from the lurid to the lovely that makes “Gangster Squad” lopsided. In short, it needs target practice.