“Gangster Squad” is the kind of neo-noir that begs its actors to adopt fanciful voices and accents. In one corner, we have Sean Penn’s real-life mobster Mickey Cohen, doing his best sandpaper-and-velvet gangster. In the other is Ryan Gosling, who opts for a higher-pitched vocal performance than usual, making it sound as if he’s been dubbed by Eddie Bracken. Toss in Josh Brolin’s whispery gravel and a handful of character actors seizing on period slang, and the result is a mishmash of vocal inflections.
Sadly, those odd acting choices are the most consistently entertaining aspect of “Gangster Squad,” whose claim to have been inspired by a true story is based solely on there once being a mobster named Mickey Cohen in Los Angeles. His downfall for tax fraud doesn’t make for the wham-bam shoot-’em-up that director Ruben Fleischer is so fond of, though, so certain “liberties” have been taken.
Ostensibly based on the unsung heroes of the LAPD who fought Cohen on his terms, “Gangster Squad” follows Sergeant O’Mara (Brolin) as he gathers a group of disparate cops to form the titular group, dedicated to using whatever means necessary to bring Cohen to his knees. Among the peripheral characters are Cohen’s glamorous girlfriend (played by Emma Stone with barely concealed impatience; this is one actor too smart and too modern to be convincing as a gangster’s moll), O’Mara’s pregnant wife, and various other wives and children included solely to make the inevitable deaths extra moving. As O’Mara and his men engage in car chases, dodge dynamite, and fling knives with impressive skill while the bodies mount, the line between the good guys and the bad guys dissolves, and fact is flung out the window like a speeding bullet.
Real life gets lost in the tonal disparity of the film, which occasionally lapses into a caper comedy, with the cops turning into the Keystone Cops. But because neither Fleischer nor screenwriter Will Beall has taken the trouble to settle on a tone—is it a delirious, fetishistic paean to he-man violence or a slinky, stoic noir steeped in the burnished palette of mid-century L.A.?—the actors are forced to pivot from cheap laughs to grim determination. Brolin sidesteps it all by clenching his jaw manfully, a decision that allows him to rise above the screenplay’s muck, while Emma Stone is reduced to a mannequin for 1940s fashion and makeup. Gosling looks great, as always, but his dissolute cop who eventually sees the light is among the more effortful characters in a film that is overloaded with ambition rather than skillful execution.
The release of “Gangster Squad” was delayed after the Aurora, Colo., shooting last summer. That it has been dumped into the no-man’s-land of January will come as no surprise after one has seen it.
Critic’s Score: C
Directed by Ruben Fleischer
Cast by John Papsidera
Starring Josh Brolin, Sean Penn, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone