‘Gangster Squad’: Shooting blanks

January 8, 2013

You get the feeling that Ruben Fleischer would have been happy to make an homage to the gangster movies of the 1940s (filtered through both a 1970s and a 21st-century perspective) when he was making “Gangster Squad.”

That’s not the same thing, unfortunately, as making a derivative and slight piece of entertainment, which is what the bloody, only occasionally exciting “Gangster Squad” turns out to be.

Calling it “derivative” implies someone else having done this kind of thing before – and done it better. Well, gee, where to start? If you were to call this a West Coast version of “The Untouchables,” you wouldn’t be far off the mark, right down to a machine-gun fight on a large public staircase.

Oh wait, that’s right: Brian De Palma was quoting yet another film, Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin” with his shoot-out in Chicago’s Union Station. I won’t accuse Fleischer of mimicking De Palma, because it seems obvious. Young filmmakers have been sampling “Scarface” on a regular basis for almost 30 years.

“Gangster Squad” patches together clichés of the gangster movie that were old when I was young, secure in the belief that a youth audience either doesn’t realize that it’s all been done before – or doesn’t care. From Jimmy Cagney to Sean Penn’s Mickey Cohen in this film, it’s always been the same: the megalomaniacal crime boss with money to burn to corrupt the power structure of his city, battling a small group of cops who refuse to be bought.

Supposedly based on a true story, the film is set in 1949 Los Angeles, where Brooklyn-born gangster Mickey Cohen has not just set up shop but bought most of the police and city hall. He runs drugs and prostitutes with impunity, as a homicide detective named John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) learns when he interrupts the workings of a sex-slave operation that Cohen runs.

His refusal to take Cohen’s money brings him to the attention of the police chief, William Parker (Nick Nolte), an honest cop whose hands are tied when it comes to Cohen. So he enlists O’Mara and a small squad of O’Mara’s choosing to end Cohen’s reign, using violence instead of badges.

In other words, he empowers them as vigilantes, sent to clean up the dirty frontier town that L.A. is in danger of becoming. But writer Will Beall seems to take all his plot twists from a computer program for expectable moments; they aren’t twists but straight-aways, with dots the audience will easily connect in their head, long before Fleischer gets there himself.

The tit-for-tat nature of the relationship between the cops and Cohen is a roadmap that’s been followed before, to much greater effect. This film might as well have been made in the 1940s, as telegraphed as each plot point is.

Brolin has a stern righteous quality that works for his character and Penn plays Cohen as a crafty slob, trying to learn to be a snob. Ryan Gosling plays the go-along-to-get-along cop who loses his me-first attitude to join O’Mara’s gang. But Gosling’s laidback jive-talker isn’t written smartly enough to be funny or tragic. Neither is Emma Stone, as the Cohen moll who falls for the bad-boy side of Gosling.

The rest of the squad is a predictable if capably acted blend of types: the old-timer (Robert Patrick) who’s can’t-miss with a six-shooter; his young Hispanic sidekick (Michael Pena); the black cop (Anthony Mackie) who is, well, a black cop; and the tech-nerd with a conscience (Giovanni Ribisi). But weak writing serves no one – and even seasoned character actors like these can’t make music of such flat writing.

As for the action, well, it’s heavily armed – and rarely exciting. This is the movie, after all, whose opening was pushed back a few months because it had to have a movie-theater shoot-out scene edited out, in the wake of the Aurora, Colo., “Dark Knight Rises” multiplex massacre. This movie still has lots of bang – but that gets tiresome a lot faster than the filmmakers apparently think.

You need to be brutish to deal with brutes: That often is the bottom line when it comes to dealing with gangsters or war criminals or whoever. That’s not the same as assuming that the world is full of brutes and acting accordingly. I don’t object to the story “Gangster Squad” is telling. I object to how lamely it is told.

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