A triumph of production design but a pretty dull kill-'em-up otherwise, the post-World War II-set "Gangster Squad" comes from the director of "Zombieland," Ruben Fleischer. It's clear Fleischer, who also made "30 Minutes or Less," hadn't worked through his "Zombieland" jones by the time he got to his latest film. I liked "Zombieland," which made a strong case for its brand of viscera and wisecracks. But "Gangster Squad" is a different sort of picture, or should be.
It's based partially on the real-life 1940s square-off between a secret cadre of Los Angeles Police Department officers and their mobster nemeses, led by the notorious Mickey Cohen. In the opening scene, Cohen, played with scowling Neanderthal relish by Sean Penn, oversees the murder of a soon-to-be-ex-associate. We're up in the Hollywood hills, just behind the sign that still reads "Hollywoodland." The man is pulled apart. In half. Maybe it happened in real life, and maybe it didn't, but launching your gangster picture on such a ridiculous note of bloody excess is certainly a risk. A misguided one.
Josh Brolin, better than his material, narrates this highly fanciful bash, which denounces its heroes' methods of payback even as it celebrates the cinematic possibilities of gun-related violence. With the blessing of LA's valiant police chief (Nick Nolte), Brolin's character, Sgt. John O'Mara, back from the war, assembles a team to take out Cohen, who has made LA his playground too long.
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Ryan Gosling, who never really seems to be acting in any period other than 2013, plays the lady-killer copper who falls for Cohen's mistress (Emma Stone). Robert Patrick and Michael Pena play a double act brought into the project; Giovanni Ribisi worms around as the electronics ace in charge of bugging Cohen's digs and providing what little moral conscience "Gangster Squad" accommodates.
Some of these characters are based on the record, others are made up, and most of the dialogue is made of wood, befitting such rejoinders as: Let's give him "a permanent vacation in a pine box!" The template for "Gangster Squad," based on Paul Lieberman's nonfiction account and goosed up by screenwriter Will Beall, is clearly Brian De Palma's "The Untouchables," written by David Mamet. Good template; weak variation.
The original cut of "Gangster Squad" featured a movie theater massacre, which was taken out and rewritten and re-shot in another location. You don't really notice the lurch in continuity, because although "Gangster Squad" boasts swell art direction (I love the nightclubs, Slapsy Maxie's and Club Figaro), it's really just a series of gory, impersonal tit-for-tat revenge killings. Only Penn's line readings feel completely fresh. He may be made up to look like Big Boy Caprice in "Dick Tracy." He may be playing a copy of a copy of a movie stereotype. But like Brolin, Penn seems to be living and breathing convincingly in another time, another place. Even if that place is a movie fantasy.
'Gangster Squad' -- 2 stars
MPAA rating: R (for strong violence and language)
Running time: 1:50