There have been so many films made about American crime in the post-war years – and so many great ones at that – it's surely a challenge for any new take on this era to feel fresh. Ruben Fleischer's Gangster Squad attempts to distinguish itself with flashy direction and an interesting angle on a notorious real-life kingpin, but the former overwhelms the latter to disastrous effect. This is Fleischer's third feature – after the intermittently amusing Zombieland and the slapdash 30 Minutes or Less – and it is by far his most ambitious production yet. But that increase in scope has apparently prompted Fleischer to liven up his aesthetic style appropriately, and there's a horrible mismatch between his garish contemporary visuals and the dully familiar narrative.
If you've heard of Gangster Squad at all it may be because of the film's troubled production. The picture was delayed for reshoots and reedits late last year because of a scene in a cinema that suffered from troubling echoes of the tragic shooting in Aurora. Perhaps the reshoots had an impact on the tone of the film, because as it stands Gangster Squad is a film that doesn't seem to know what it wants to be – an old-fashioned mob movie, a contemporary spin on classic themes, or an homage to earlier pictures. In fact, the film's script and characterisation is so appallingly clichéd and witless I almost suspected that it might be a spoof.
Gangster Squad claims to be "inspired by a true story" but when the filmmakers have blithely rewritten the well-known fate of Mickey Cohen (played here by Sean Penn), who's to say what we can believe? The protagonist here certainly seems too good to be true. Sgt. John O'Mara (Josh Brolin) is a war hero-turned detective; tough, square and incorruptible. We are introduced to him as he cleans out a roomful of Cohen's goons single-handed, and as one of the LAPD's few honest cops, he is selected by Chief Parker (Nick Nolte, at his gravelliest) to head up an off-the-books squad aimed taking down Cohen's operations through brute force. O'Mara hires a team, which consists of laid-back ladies' man Ryan Gosling (bored, mannered, irritating), knife-throwing Harlem cop Anthony Mackie and surveillance geek Giovanni Ribisi (both disposable). These characters have no more depth to them than the brief descriptions I've outlined, and they seem to have stepped right off the pages of a comic book – literally so, in the case of Robert Patrick's sharpshooting cowboy.
Like the characters, the LA of Gangster Squad is all surface. Fleischer is obviously in thrall to the glamour of this era, from the sharp suits and to the neon-lit nightclubs, but it all looks too clean and too fake, thanks to Dion Beebe's over-stylised digital cinematography. Above all, however, Fleischer is in thrall to the violence these men (it's always the men; women are here to simper and worry) do to each other. There's a grim sadism apparent in the way the director utilises slow-motion so excessively to watch bullets fly from Tommy guns and tear through flesh; the film may have removed the one sequence that the filmmakers feared would offend, but the content that remains is still entirely repugnant.
It's all rather exhausting to watch, especially when Sean Penn is on screen. While most of the actors appear subdued (notably Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, whose easy chemistry was the highlight of Crazy, Stupid, Love.), Penn chews the scenery with a ferocity and relish that I haven't seen from an actor in many years. With a permanent snarl on his lips and his eyes glaring out from under a thick prosthetic brow, he looks more like a refugee from Dick Tracy than the real Cohen, and his excruciating display only highlights what a ridiculously cartoonish fiasco this is. Gangster Squad is ugly, vapid and irredeemably stupid; it wallows in violence but ends up looking and feeling about as authentic as Bugsy Malone. Instead of wasting time and money on this garbage, just watch LA Confidential again. See how the grown-ups do it.