If a group of 12-year-old boys wanted to make a movie in their backyard, there's a good chance it might end up something like Gangster Squad. Sure, it wouldn't have the flashy production design and big names, but it would definitely share the same adolescent mindset. With its tough talk and bang-bang violence and pretty dames, Gangster Squad is, in reality, the byproduct of a bunch of Hollywood stars deciding to play dress-up and pretend they're in one of those great old gangster movies that came out way before they were born. Gangster Squad never stops reminding you that everyone in it thinks it's awesome that they're making it. You won't feel the same awe watching it.
The movie is based on the recent book by journalist Paul Lieberman, which detailed the efforts of a group of Los Angeles police detectives who fought powerful gangster Mickey Cohen during the 1940s and '50s. In the film, that group is led by Sgt. O'Mara (Josh Brolin), who recruits a team of men who will work outside the law to dismantle Cohen's (Sean Penn) operation. Each of O'Mara's men has his own important trait/quirk so we can tell them apart: There's the hunky rebel (Ryan Gosling); the nerdy technician (Giovanni Ribisi); the black dude (Anthony Mackie); and the guy who looks like Robert Patrick with a funny handlebar mustache (Robert Patrick). And, to make things a little more interesting, there is of course a love interest, a doll named Grace (Emma Stone) who's Cohen's girl but soon becomes involved with Gosling.
It's easy to see why everyone involved would want to be a part of Gangster Squad. You get to wear snazzy duds, smoke, and project an air of blasé coolness. (And, in Penn's case, you also get to ham it up with relish.) Drunk on its mid-century L.A. atmosphere and hard-boiled grit, Gangster Squad has plenty of superficial pleasures. Everybody and everything looks great, the cast is all game (although Stone tries a little too hard to play a bombshell), and if you're a sucker like me for Southern California noir like Chinatown or Kiss Me Deadly, the movie will hit your soft spot.
The problem, though, is that while Gangster Squad has all the period details right, the movie doesn't populate that decor with much in the way of interesting characters or plot points. It's not just the Ocean's Eleven-like assembly of the so-called gangster squad that's familiar: It's the way the movie keeps harking back to earlier, better films without offering much of a twist on any of them. The cops-and-cons stuff is all cliché, and even Penn's over-the-top Cohen can't help but recall Robert De Niro's equally oversized turn as Al Capone in The Untouchables. (The one saving grace is how Penn portrays Cohen as a painfully insecure fool. Cohen's more disturbing because he doesn't seem all that evil: As played by Penn, he's just the world's meanest spoiled brat.)
The movie has two modestly intriguing ideas—one that sorta, kinda works and one that gets more annoying the more you think about it. The first is that O'Mara and some of his men have joined the LAPD straight out of serving in World War II, in part because they're completely unable to function in the normal world after killing on the battlefield. Director Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland, 30 Minutes or Less) gets this point across best through Brolin's performance as O'Mara, who's so closed off from the loving, pregnant wife he has at home that he can't stop putting himself into danger in a misguided belief that he's keeping her safe. Gangster Squad argues that the squad in some ways needs Cohen: As violent and dangerous as he is, at least he provides these guys with a recognizable black-and-white villain that can make their transition from the madness of war a little more seamless.
But that brings us to the other idea—the one that really fails—which is the notion that because this squad operated outside the boundaries of the law, they became as bad as the criminals they went after. In a nuanced drama like Zero Dark Thirty, such moral complexity creates a forum for a thoughtful conversation. But in the shallow dress-up of Gangster Squad, it's mostly just lip service used to rationalize what otherwise is a pretty flamboyantly reckless salute to getting justice by any means necessary. Apparently, Lieberman's book is more interested in examining that fine line between law and disorder, but Fleischer just wants to revel in the tommy-gun carnage while very occasionally reminding us that maybe this isn't the sort of thing we should be encouraging in those sworn to protect us.
Frankly, I wish Gangster Squad had just gone all the way and embraced its amoral outlook: Some of the movie's best moments are when it explodes into mindless, vindictive violence. At least then Gangster Squad wouldn't feel so apologetic about its shoot-'em-up spirit. (You may remember that the movie was recut and its release date pushed back after the Aurora shooting.) Mindless violence isn't the worst thing in the world. Mindless violence with dull characters, a threadbare story and a halfhearted, unpersuasive stab at a conscience? Then we've got real problems.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.