Review: ‘Gangster Squad’ features a great cast but a soft script

I am fascinated by Los Angeles and its history, and chances are if there’s a book or a film about the city, I’ve read it or watched it.  In particular, the history of law enforcement and its failures here is something that I’ve been obsessed with for years.  When you list the very best of what’s out there, you have to include “Chinatown,” a canny piece about the way water and blood were used to build what we think of as modern LA, as well as the books by authors like Walter Mosely and James Ellroy.

“Gangster Squad,” liberally adapted from the non-fiction book by Paul Lieberman by real-life-LA-cop-turned-screenwriter Will Beall, is never going to be considered a classic of the genre, but the film has a certain pop cartoon charm that makes it enjoyable, if slight.  Gangster Mickey Cohen has been portrayed on film a few times before.  Harvey Keitel played him in Barry Levinson’s “Bugsy” and was rewarded with an Oscar nomination for his work.  And in “LA Confidential,” Cohen makes a small appearance with Paul Guilfoyle playing the part.  

In “Gangster Squad,” Cohen’s been promoted to the main protagonist, and Sean Penn attacks the part with a manic energy that I found wildly entertaining at times.  He looks like a “Dick Tracy” villain, exaggerated and feral, and the film focuses on a period at the end of the ’40s when Police Chief Parker (played by a Henson Muppet Studios version of Nick Nolte that is remarkably lifelike) decided to authorize a group of his officers to set aside strictly legal methods to bring down Cohen’s operations.  Basically, this is a stripped down and slicked-up version of “The Untouchables,” with Josh Brolin starring as Sgt. John O’Mara, the honest cop who is put in charge of putting together his team of trustworthy men to help him.

As with “The Untouchables,” the fun of the film comes in two distinct halves.  First, there’s the putting together of the team, which includes Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie), Max Kennard (Robert Patrick), Navidad Ramirez (Michael Pena), and Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi), all with their own particular skill set that they contribute to the cause.  Then once they’ve been brought together, it’s all about how they apply the pressure to Cohen.  There’s a lot I like about the film, and I think it there’s a good chunk of the film where it has a sort of easy-going energy to it.  But there’s a big moral question at the heart of the film that they never address, and without fully embracing the notion of cops who decide that they will set aside the letter of the law in order to do something they see as necessary, the film ultimately rings hollow.  That’s not me saying that I feel like the film did it “wrong,” because it’s a choice.  It’s just not the choice that I find most compelling.  I would rather see something more grounded in fact, darker in overall tone because that’s how I picture the Los Angeles of the late 1940s.  Sure, it was a very pretty time for the city, and my favorite architecture in LA comes from that time, but at heart, post-war Los Angeles was an ugly place, and “Gangster Squad” glosses that in ways that hobble the film’s overall effectiveness.

Ruben Fleischer has a knack for creating strong images, but I’m not sure he’s figured out how to create a consistent tone.  Even in his strongest film so far, “Zombieland,” there are several different tones in play.  Here, he never quite commits to either telling the brutal raw version of the story or the giddy fun version, and the back-and-forth between the two might leave you with a bit of whiplash.  If you walk into the film expecting “LA Confidential,” you’ll be disappointed, but I’m pretty sure that’s not the film they were trying to make.  Instead, they seem to be trying to paint this as the last moment that the mob could have really taken hold in Los Angeles, and a portrait of the people who stopped that from happening.  I haven’t ready Lieberman’s book, but there’s a lot of details here that don’t line up with what I’ve read over the years about Cohen and his time in LA.  As a result, this can’t even be judged as a snapshot of a real LA.  From the moment we see the opening images, it’s obvious that this is a heightened fantasyland version of the city and the era, and it’s at its best when it does’t even try to play it as reality.

Robert Patrick seems to get the movie they’re trying to make, and he chews on his big moments with relish.  Anthony Mackie has a great introduction but quickly gets sidelined.  Michael Pena, or as I like to call him, The Best Thing About Every Movie He’s In, seems to have finally met his match here, and there’s really nothing for him to do in the script.  Despite the chemistry that Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling demonstrated in “Crazy Stupid Love,” their storyline is probably the biggest misfire in the film.  It might have worked as a standalone movie, but there’s a light, nimble, playful quality to their early scenes together, and it is greatly missed as the film wears on.  The script struggles to find a reason to keep her character in the film and active, and then once they finally figure out a way to make her central to the story, it’s all handled in a few lines of dialogue about something that takes place off-screen. 

And while I like the idea of the film’s ending, the execution doesn’t land right.  The real life Mickey Cohen was indeed a boxer who loved to fight, and considering the way Brolin seems to be one of the only guys in his age group who convincingly plays a man instead of a boy, I’m all for watching the two of them go toe-to-toe.  Unfortunately, Dion Beebe’s photography is all over the place, something that is starting to become his signature.  I think being a director of photography during this transition period from film to digital has got to be a nightmarish job because the tools to evolve and it seems like the use of old language and new toys sometimes leads to a film that looks great and terrible, often within the same scenes.

Overall, “Gangster Squad” is a light entertainment, the sort of film that goes down painlessly in the theater but that evaporates upon reflection.  It’s closer to the “Mulholland Falls” end of the spectrum than the dizzying heights of “Chinatown,” but there are mild pleasures to be had if you walk in knowing what to expect.

“Gangster Squad” opens everywhere on Friday.