'Gangster Squad' gives light duty to a talented team

January 20, 2013
Sean Penn and Josh Brolin in Gangster Squad. SOURCE WARNER BROS. PICTURES

Though it clearly used the seminal 1987 mobster film as a template, “Gangster Squad” is hardly “The Untouchables.”

It’s much looser, ragged and cliched in its storytelling, but not completely without its stylistic, period-piece charms. Think of it more as “The Fondle-ables.”

Opening with a smoky voiceover from Josh Brolin (who plays honest cop Det. John O’Mara) and the ubiquitous “Inspired by True Events” placard, the film drops us into 1949 Los Angeles, where legendary gangster Mickey Cohen (in a role seized and pulverized by Sean Penn) is plotting a hostile takeover of the city. An East Coast transplant, Cohen is hell-bent on controlling all the action within the town, with everyone from simple shopkeepers to local law enforcement complicit with fear.

The police chief (played by Nick Nolte, who sounds as though he’s gargling a quarry of rocks) tasks O’Mara with assembling his dream team of renegade lawmen to take Cohen down and restore sanity to the City of Angels. O’Mara, of course, consulted the “Cop Cliche Directory” to find the dreamy detective (played by Ryan Gosling), the over-the-hill outlaw legend (played by Robert Patrick), his Hispanic sidekick (played by Michael Pena), the wisecracking black detective (Anthony Mackie) and the electronics nerd (played by Giovanni Ribisi).

That paragraph alone may be enough for some to dismiss the film as a throwaway, and, by and large, it is. But it still manages to coast on its style, a few inventive turns and a few engaging performances that rise above the material provided. For example, after the team bands together for the first time, they decide to kick into action immediately and take down a casino, only to have the tables turned and have their first big bust turn out to be just that - a bust. It’s humiliating for them and humorous for us, and gives us just enough octane to get to the next setup.

And that’s how “Gangster Squad” operates. It never accelerates as much as it just coasts. We arrive at scenes’ conclusions far before the characters do - from the fate of the sunny shoeshine boy to the femme fatale (played by Emma Stone), but at no point is the story not engaging us.

The film does suffer from an erratic tone that sometimes reaches for noir, but only achieves a light grey. And yet, despite all the mess, there is something that makes “Gangster Squad” eminently watchable throughout. Even though we never get too much nuance, we believe Brolin’s shovel-handed detective is singular in his drive, even if it means jeopardizing his expectant wife. Gosling, though, is not as impressive. It’s not because of the actor’s ability (which he’s cemented time and time again), but rather the script, which feeds him lines as though he’s a lead from that abysmal 1990s Young-Guns-go-Mafia flick, “Mobsters.”

While the other members of the squad are basically given one note each to play, they play well. But the actor of note in the picture is Penn as the charismatic Cohen. Buried under gobs of bad prosthetics, he appears to have walked off the set of Warren Beatty’s “Dick Tracy,” and he plays his role as though in a cartoon panel. It’s weird, wonderful and watchable if only to see just how nutso he’s prepared to go with it all. If “Gangster Squad” had been released just a few months ago during the prestige of the awards-worthy films, I might have written an entirely different review for the film. But somehow in the low-bar-setting doldrums of January movies, there was just enough to make “Gangster” hit its mark.