With so much star power involved, it’s surprising Gangster Squad is being released during the post-awards-season doldrums, the annual dumping ground for movies in which studios have lost confidence. Sean Penn tops the cast as Mickey Cohen, the now-fabled Los Angeles gangster who barely managed to keep a lid on his slice of the SoCal underworld of the ’40s. Josh Brolin is Sgt. John O’Mara, a ruthlessly dedicated loose cannon who compulsively applies vigilante justice to pimps. And Ryan Gosling is Sgt. Jerry Wooten, a smooth-talking ladies man who is the yin to O’Mara’s yang.
When O’Mara busts into one of Cohen’s brothels to save a girl from a pimp he followed from a bus station, he sets off a war between the cops and the criminals that gains the backing of Chief Parker (Nick Nolte). O’Mara has to put together his own police gang, and with the help of his wife (Mireille Enos) lines up Wooten, idealistic Harris (Anthony Mackie), brainy Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi) and grizzled sharp shooter Kennard (Robert Patrick), whose brings along faithful companion Ramirez (Michael Pena). It’s basically The Untouchables all over again, wrapped in an L.A. Confidential atmosphere.
Unfortunately, director Ruben Fleischer doesn’t have anything fresh to add to the formula. Not that he has much to work with, as writer Will Beall’s thinly drawn characters are little more than props meant to fire machine guns with abandon. Cohen’s sadism eclipses the cops’ violent methods, but the orgy of gunfire in Gangster Squad delayed its summer 2012 release after the Aurora, Colo., shooting. Torn-from-the-headlines context isn’t needed to demonstrate why films like this cause people to blame gun violence on Hollywood, though. When excessive gunfire is used to mask bad filmmaking, everybody loses.