Despite our great love for such contemporary gangster vs. law enforcement efforts such as THE UNTOUCHABLES and L.A. CONFIDENTIAL, even in those great films, the portrayal of the bad guys in particular is exaggerated, even bordering on cartoonish. But I like cartoons, and there are few things I love more than watching Robert De Niro making a David Mamet-written speech about the great American pastime while pacing around a table of his lieutenants just before he brains one of them with a baseball bat. It may be unbelievable, but it's simply great cinema.
And while I'm not comparing the quality of these older films to director Reuben Fleischer's latest, GANGSTER SQUAD, there's a level of outrageous behavior that infects just about every scene that Sean Penn is in. Penn plays Mickey Cohen, who in late-'40s Los Angeles wanted to take over the whores, drugs, gambling and gun-running rackets of not just of Southern California, but the whole state. Sometimes, Penn's performance is hilarious; other times it's ridiculous; but most times, it's both. Penn shares almost no scenes with the titular group of this film, and I suspect that's because Fleischer (ZOMBIELAND, 30 MINUTES OR LESS) knew that if he put them side by side, you'd realize Penn is acting in an entirely different film than everyone else.
Reacting to Cohen growing power in L.A., Police Chief Parker (Nikc Nolte) recruits war hero turned cop John O'Mara (Josh Brolin) to pull together an off-the-books squad of fellow officers to take down Cohen's entire operation. At the suggestion of his wife (Mireille Enos), O'Mara doesn't recruit "boy scouts" for this squad; she suggests getting outcasts--guys for whom keeping the peace is the priority, not advancement or glory. So the Gangster Squad is a group of outcasts including a cowboy type (Robert Patrick), his Mexican partner (Michael Peña), a communications expert (Giovanni Ribisi), a dedicated black officer (Anthony Mackie), and, with some coaxing, Jerry Wooters, a womanizing cop (Ryan Gosling) who would rather stay safe and drunk than get shot at (who wouldn't, right?). Wooters latest conquest just happens to be Cohen's dame (and etiquite coach), Grace, played by Emma Stone.
Some of the team's missions go off beautifully; others are disasters or set ups to draw them out. One such sequence is an elaborately staged attempted drug bust in Chinatown (this is the sequence that replaces the excised movie theater shootout, removed and reshot for obvious reasons last fall). It's a great, tense, nicely paced scene, and I wish there were more like them in GANGSTER SQUAD. Most of the action sequences in the film have the finesse of a mallet being dropped on your big toe (with an accompanying Looney Tunes sound effect turned up as loud as it can get). The film's climactic shoot out between the squad and Mickey's men doesn't have nearly the rhythm and timing of the Chinatown sequence, and it hurts the film's overall impact.
The other thing that is sadly missed is character development. I realize GANGSTER SQUAD isn't about talking and getting to know these guys on any intimate level, but give us some reasons to care if they live or die. The best we get is some minor input from Enos as Mrs. O'Mara, a plucky pregnant lady who seem to know people and what makes them tick better than any of the men on her husband's team. But the romance between Jerry and Grace lacks any real depth beyond sex, which is extraordinary since Gosling and Stone had such great chemistry in CRAZY, STUPID, LOVE. That takes a special talent to remove chemistry from whence it already existed. And it's not that their performances are poor, but the material (written by occasional "Castle" writer Will Beall, from the Paul Lieberman novel) just isn't functional.
In fact, much of GANGSTER SQUAD is made up of moments in which the acting is forced to prop up a cliché-driven plot, and in many cases it's a pretty stable structure as a result. But other times, especially when the ham sandwich known as Sean Penn is on screen, the whole thing just comes crashing down. I've seen GANGSTER SQUAD twice, and you don't have to look hard to find things to have fun with. But you also don't have to search far to find thing to make fun of (sorry, Troy Garity, but you look like you're wearing a gangster Halloween costume).
It's fun weaving through the period lingo, the clothes look great, and the attitude is dead on. But there are definitely other instances where this feels like actors playing dress up, going through the motions of a gangster film but not really living it. The fact that the film tells you it's based on true events does not help its case; there is being real and feeling real. And very little in this movie feels real. It's a closer call than you might think, but I still can't quite give this one a pass.