Director Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland, 30 Minutes or Less) comes off like a cut-rate Martin Scorsese with Gangster Squad, his stylized, ultraviolent version of the historical crime epic. Although “inspired” by true events, Gangster Squad is more of a cartoon than a history lesson, about as close to the reality of organized crime in the 1940s as a Dick Tracy comic strip. Notorious gangster Mickey Cohen, played here by Sean Penn, has been depicted in movies including L.A. Confidential and Bugsy, but Fleischer and writer Will Beall present him as a generic cackling villain, and Penn seems to have entered the latter-day Al Pacino phase of his career, delivering a hammy, over-the-top performance that fits with the movie’s cartoonish tone.
The squad of the title is a secret group of elite LAPD officers, commissioned by the police chief (Nick Nolte) to take down Cohen using any means necessary. Good-hearted brute Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) recruits a team of one-dimensional types, including the soulful Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), who’s having an affair with one of Cohen’s top dames (Emma Stone). The squad is basically the 1940s version of The Expendables, engaging in extreme violence with virtually no consequences (except when the plot calls for the tragic death of a minor character). Penn and Gosling both affect distracting tough-guy voices, and only Stone seems at home in the period setting (although her character is even more underwritten than the men). The real story of the LAPD’s war against Mickey Cohen might make for an interesting crime drama, but Gangster Squad offers up a slick, empty bloodbath instead.