In the ever-growing history of the genre of LA noir films comes Gangster Squad. It’s the 1948 and righteous police officer Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) is on the trail of Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), the most powerful mobster in Los Angeles. Constantly frustrated by the lack of backbone shown by his superiors and the courts, O’Mara accepts a covert position at the behest of Police Chief Bill Parker (Nick Nolte). With the help of his wife he forms a team of officers including technology expert Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi), old school gunslinger Max Kennard (Robert Patrick), his young protege Navidad (Michael Pena), knife expert Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie) and O’Mara’s best friend, the cool ladies man Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) who happens to be the part-time lover of Cohen’s main squeeze Grace Faraday (Emma Stone). Charged with bringing disorder, chaos and finally destruction to Cohen’s criminal empire, the Gangster Squad begin targeting the mobsters main base of operations.
Clearly aiming for the pulp hard-boiled noir thrillers of the 1940s, Gangster Squad misses the mark by becoming confused in its intentions. The art design for clothes and cars is good, but the choice of shooting in the modern-feeling cameras breaks the historical mood and immediately reminds you that this has been shot in a different era entirely. There’s an insistence of including old-looking modern technology like a wind-up mobile phones, which adds to the jarring effect. This is not to say that the technology didn’t exist, but it feels anachronistic.
Gangster Squad is as cliched as it sounds, with a group of talented misfits banding together to bring down a villain so corrupt that he might as well be the Devil incarnate. This is a fine prospect, especially with the stellar cast throughout, but it rarely allows them to shine as they have been known to. The casting of Emma Stone seems like a masterstroke on paper, but in reality she is forced to play the token ‘pretty girl’ which is a bigger crime than anything else in the film.
There are some nice moments of direction such as slow motion sparks and quickfire fighting, but these are simply window dressing for a script that is so underwhelming that it just sucks the life out of the film. When compared to other films in the genre it comes off as a pale imitation Then by the time we reach the end there is no emotional gravitas to hold our attention, which simply highlights the flaws and allows us to gloss over the positives. The only person who seems to have any grasp on the element of fun required to pull-off a pulp, trashy noir like this is Sean Penn, who throws himself into Mickey Cohen with so much brute force that he is truly compelling. Everyone else seems to think that they are playing it as a serious epic, but without a script to back it up Gangster Squad ends up feeling forced, dull and completely forgettable.