Directed by Ruben Fleischer
You might assume, based on the collective onscreen grimaces, stares, soulfully pained looks, and assorted unhappy countenances of Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, and, holy hell, Sean Penn, that a gangster movie attracting the participation of all three men would register on a scale of operatic dourness somewhere between Road to Perdition and something by Michael Mann. It would probably not even occur to you, then, to assume further that said picture would not coincide with Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland) making his very first feature that exceeds 90 minutes. But Fleischer's Gangster Squad does indeed star Brolin, Gosling, and Penn, run well over 90 minutes, and settle at a level of pulpiness somewhere below opera. As to that precise degree of seriousness, it's sometimes hard to tell: there are darkly funny touches in Penn's characterization of real-life gangster Mickey Cohen as a pure-evil comic-book antagonist, but the movie has plenty of dead-center lines (and accompanying readings) that land with a wooden clack.
Brolin, playing straight-arrow cop John O'Mara, assumes most of the wood-carrying duties (including ridiculous opening and closing narration). It's all part of his role shepherding the squad of renegade cops recruited—off the books—by Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) to treat the East Coast gangster dominating postwar Los Angeles as "enemy occupation." In one of the movie's too-rare subversions of genre conventions, O'Mara's fretting wife nonetheless goes through the personnel files and makes her picks: streetwise Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie); marksman Max Kennard (Robert Patrick) and his sidekick Navidad Ramirez (Michael Pena); tech guru Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi); and Jerry Wooters (Gosling), a reluctant hero carrying on an affair with reluctant mob girl Grace Faraday (Emma Stone).
This means that following Crazy Stupid Love, we get another Stone-Gosling bar-pickup scene, and another movie that could have benefited from more of their chemistry. Around Stone, Gosling relaxes his actorly tics, turning smooth and amusingly smarmy—though here, even his underplaying has an air of affectation to it. He speaks in a high, slow mutter, which is strange because Giovanni Ribisi is already in the movie. But he and Penn, despite their serious reputations, seem to be having the most fun. Their dedication, or at least their participation, brings to mind the greats of 70s cinema who all signed on to appear in Dick Tracy back in 1990. Actually, Gangster Squad, with its simplistic story hinging on bugging and cartoon warrants, very much resembles Dick Tracy (perhaps by way of De Palma's The Untouchables) with sleek art-deco production design subbing in for the primary colors and elaborate makeup—and its occasional forays into gore recall the perversity of Chester Gould more clearly than Beatty's slightly cleaned-up adaptation.
Fleischer's film, from a dopey script by Will Beall, never goes deeper than that surface sheen, where period costumes are a hip form of dress-up for attractive actors, and nightclubs are mainly swell excuses for elaborate tracking shots. Dick Tracy didn't either, but Gangster Squad's aesthetics aren't quite so eye-popping; that tracking shot is slick, Stone and Gosling look great, and Fleischer shows off some music-video flourishes (I love the way gunshots produce burnished still-frames during a jailbreak scene), but the pleasures are fleeting. The movie neglects much of its ensemble (Pena, so endearing as the cop in End of Watch, here may have more lines spoken about his character than by his character), and it lacks the grinning irreverence that has informed Fleischer's comedies. He hasn't quite found a way to fill the space left when jokes get taken out, or converted to sly winks. As the gunsmoke clears, so does the movie.
Opens January 11