Excuse my snark, but why in hell do Hollywood studios always choose January to bury their stiffs? They must think we won't notice, distracted by the 2012 leftovers (Django Unchained, Les Miz, et al.) whoring for Oscars? We notice, especially when a new film falls on its fat one. Exhibit A: Gangster Squad, a mob epic that flushes a classy cast (Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone) down the sinkhole of creative bankruptcy.
Gangster Squad doesn't have an original idea in its dizzy, derivative head. It looks art-deco yummy, swanning around 1949 Los Angeles as mobster Mickey Cohen (Penn), the cops in his pocket, gobbles up profits from gambling, guns, drugs and hookers. But it's running on empty, ripping off real-deal gangster movies – L.A. Confidential, The Untouchables, Bugsy and Chinatown should sue. The result is like a greatest-hits collection done by a lousy cover band. It's not a hommage to Scarface when Penn (spewing "Say hello to my leetle friend" glee) opens fire from behind a hotel Christmas tree sneering, "Here comes Santy Claus." It's grand theft.
Some problems can't be avoided. Time is clearly not on the side of gunplay as fun, what with the recent school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, and the mass killings last summer at a Colorado multiplex showing The Dark Knight Rises. A trailer for Gangster Squad featuring a gun battle in a crowded movie theater stirred so much ire that the scene was replaced in the film with a shootout in Chinatown.
Too bad, given the primo source material in a series of 2008 articles that Paul Lieberman wrote for The Los Angeles Times about the real history of the Gangster Squad. Brolin excels by wisely underplaying squad leader John O'Mara, who led his rogue team on covert raids against Cohen's hoods using tommy guns and enhanced interrogation techniques. Police chief William Parker (Nick Nolte) had their backs but couldn't offer official help to vigilante cops using thug methods to catch thugs.
O'Mara recruits his dirty half dozen with help from his pregnant wife, Connie (Mireille Enos of The Killing, fighting a thankless role). There's Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Gosling), the World War II vet and pussyhound who shrugs off corruption until it becomes personal. Add beat cop Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie) to rep black L.A., cowboy Max Kennard (Robert Patrick) for oldschool kick, Navidad Ramirez (Michael Peña) for Latino heat, and tech nerd Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi) to bug Cohen, literally and figuratively.
How do you botch a story like that? Start with the overcooked script by newcomer Will Beall, a former homicide cop with the LAPD. Beall's fondness for detective fiction borders on parody. Director Ruben Fleischer, who debuted with such promise on Zombieland, inexplicably encourages the fancy-pants dialogue. Listen to Cohen on Manifest Destiny: "That's when you take what you can when you can. Los Angeles is my destiny." If you say so, Mickey. Penn, an indisputably great actor, plays Cohen by channeling Robert De Niro's Al Capone in The Untouchables. He's outmatched. Gosling raises his voice an octave to play Wooters and reunites with Emma Stone, his co-star in Crazy Stupid Love, who looks gorgeous as Grace Faraday, Cohen's moll. Like Russell Crowe and Kim Basinger in L.A. Confidential, these forbidden lovers want to go straight. Listen to Grace: "You're kind. You don't talk too much. And you're a demon in the sack." If you say so, Grace.
This movie made my ears hurt. Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and James Ellroy could have turned this pulp into insinuating jazz. What's here is a cartoonish bore. When the dialogue gets too much, Fleischer cuts to the action, which is all sound and fury signifying an overgenerous budget. This-just-in technology only emphasizes the emptiness inside. Watch five minutes of L.A. Confidential to see what might have been. Haunting resonance instead of digital flash; moral ambiguity instead of down-market escapism. But why cry over a missed opportunity? To paraphrase a wise cop in Chinatown, "Forget it, Jake, it's January."