The cops play things as dirty as the crooks in “Gangster Squad,” an impressively pulpy underworld-plunger that embellishes on a 1949 showdown between a dedicated team of LAPD officers and Mob-connected Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) for control of the city. Set squarely in classic-noir territory, the bombastic crimer applies a pre-Production Code amorality to this world of vice, though its gleeful depiction of violence backfired once already, forcing the removal of a scene featuring Tommy guns blazing in a crowded movie theater due to the shootings in Aurora, Colo. A six-month delay should heal all wounds for this Warners release.
Recent headlines land farther from home for this solid, retro-toned ensembler from director Ruben Fleischer (“Zombieland”), which admittedly seems a little too keen to put its 21st-century stylistic stamp on the ruthlessness of the era. Opening with a scene in which Cohen chains a rival between two cars as a message to his Chicago bosses, this macho genre homage plays closer to “The Untouchables” than to “L.A. Confidential” as a self-aware gloss on old gangster pics.
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Loosely derived from true events, as chronicled in Paul Lieberman’s book, Will Beall’s screenplay concerns the moment when, shortly after Bugsy Siegel left for Vegas, Cohen made his play for Los Angeles. An ex-boxer whose belt-winning brutality forms the backstory of Penn’s portrayal, Cohen evidently had most of the city’s peace officers in his pocket, which posed a challenge for police chief William Parker (Nick Nolte, sounding gruff as ever). The way Parker sees it, the only way to keep L.A. from going the way of Gotham, Chi-Town and Sin City is to wage guerilla war on Cohen’s operations.
His ideal general is a WWII vet named John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), a gung-ho sergeant so intent on playing the hero, he singlehandedly brings down one of Cohen’s prostitution rings in the first reel. With Parker’s blessing, O’Mara assembles the pic’s eponymous team of enforcers, whose job it is to upset Cohen’s gambling, sex and drug rings around town — an assignment complicated by the fact that dirty cops are often participating in these activities, and are all too eager to defend their patron.
It’s here that a fascinating true-crime foundation gives way to fantasy; there are moments in “Gangster Squad” where Fleischer is so far out on a limb, it makes “Dick Tracy” look like a documentary. But it’s all in the spirit of classic B-movie fun, and however over-the-top the action gets (a shootout in the lobby of the Park Plaza Hotel is a veritable orgy of bullet casings, blazing muzzles and flying shrapnel), every creative decision seems to be in service of telling the most entertaining possible story, backed by first-rate wardrobe and art contributions, and underscored by Steve Jablonsky’s might-makes-right music.
Besides, you can’t beat this cast. In the good guys’ corner, there’s Ryan Gosling, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, Robert Patrick and Michael Pena (a refreshingly mixed-race bunch, despite the period). Opposite, there’s Penn’s larger-than-life performance as Cohen, a feat of unbridled entitlement. He fumes and storms like some kind of Cro-Magnon monster who just stumbled from the cave to claim what is rightfully his, feral intensity amplified to a pitch not to be dwarfed by Al Pacino’s Tony Montana, Robert De Niro’s Al Capone or Harvey Keitel’s own spin on Cohen in “Bugsy.”
Smart guys don’t cross Mickey Cohen unless they’ve got some sort of death wish, which is why the squad’s mission feels more suicidal than anything they faced on the front lines. To raise the stakes, Beall gives O’Mara a pregnant wife (Mireille Enos) and concocts a patently crazy scenario in which pretty-boy cop Jerry Wooters (Gosling, all attitude and eyelashes) seduces Cohen’s No. 1 moll (Emma Stone).
Stone looks right for the period, her voice as smoky as the art-deco dives she inhabits, though her mannerisms clearly belong to this century. That goes for nearly the entire ensemble, which is fine, given Fleischer’s tendency to toy with slow-motion, eye-catching closeups (as when a 40-foot thumb flicks a cigarette lighter) or impossible CG-enhanced shots, as in a mostly digital car chase.
With his lantern jaw and tough, Glenn Ford-like attitude, only Brolin looks as though he’s been on hard-boil since the era in question (though one supposes the underused Nolte has been salt-curing since his “Mulholland Falls” days as well). It took Brolin nearly 45 years to grow into the family chin, and now it looks square enough to break not only Cohen’s knuckles but his entire foothold in Los Angeles.
Despite its striking use of authentic L.A. locations, from Union Station to the Hollywoodland sign (the year of its abbreviation), this highly stylized retelling plays as artificially as a stagebound musical, owing, in part, to “Chicago” d.p. Dion Beebe’s deeply shadowed, nearly all-nocturnal lensing.
Although it glories in its violent elements, the movie seems pitched at a teenage sensibility that makes such savagery incongruous. Teens are just the sort who might appreciate cutting from brains splattered on frosted glass to a raw hamburger patty thrown on the grill, but there’s really no need for such flourishes. Only once does anyone question the squad’s methods: That would be Ribisi’s officer, in a reflective scene that may have been added during reshoots — and he’s right to ask.