If Gangster Squad had been released last September, as originally scheduled, it would have been forgotten by now. There's a good chance it would have been forgotten by October. Instead, after some reshoots to avoid a coincidental resemblance to last July's Aurora movie theater massacre, it takes its rightful place in January, the graveyard of generically cartoony action misfires, never to be spoken of again.
Set in 1949 and taking its inspiration (vaguely, one gathers) from a true story, Gangster Squad tells of the Los Angeles Police Department's efforts to bring down notorious criminal Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), a hamburger-faced ex-boxer who's affiliated with the Chicago mafia but has gone rogue in his zeal to control all of L.A. Having secured the support of numerous dirty cops, Cohen freely operates casinos, prostitution rings, and other rackets, dispatching his enemies with impunity. And sometimes with puns. Mickey Cohen is the sort of comic-strip villain who tells his henchmen, "You know the drill," signifying that they are to use an electric drill to murder somebody. Kudos to the henchmen, who have learned to listen carefully to their boss' offhand remarks and decipher from them what method of death he prefers.
The only man with the guts to stand up to this menace is Sgt. John O'Mara (Josh Brolin), a square-jawed cop and crusading hero whose first act in the film is to save a naive, fresh-off-the-bus-from-Kansas girl from Cohen's pimps. O'Mara is tired of looking the other way while Cohen turns L.A. into a cesspool, and is thrilled when the police chief (Nick Nolte) notices his efforts and tells him to gather a secret task force to destroy Cohen's operation -- a "gangster squad," if you will.
The avengers he assembles include a sharpshooter (Robert Patrick), a wiretap expert (Giovanni Ribisi), a fearless black guy (Anthony Mackie), and an eager Hispanic (Michael Peña). Last but not least, there is Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling, doing an odd high-pitched voice), an honest but not particularly valiant cop who becomes committed to the mission after something happens that makes it personal for him.
For those having trouble recognizing the cliches that are being ticked off, one by one, over the course of the story, let me list a few more. O'Mara's worried wife (Mireille Enos) is pregnant. Wooters begins an affair with Cohen's main squeeze (Emma Stone), and to remind us of the danger of this situation, Cohen complains about an unrelated offense, "Story of my life: some bum's always trying to steal what's mine." (OOH, DON'T MESS WITH HIM!) The gangster squad's unorthodox, extra-legal tactics cause the wiretap expert to wonder aloud: "Can you remind me of the difference between us and them?" And so on.
The elements are in place for a perfectly rousing Dick Tracy-style adventure, and Gangster Squad occasionally taps into that sensation -- usually when Sean Penn is on the screen, chewing scenery like an enthusiastic Al Pacino understudy. In other words, it's fun when you don't take it seriously. Unfortunately, the film expects us to take it seriously far more often than it should. Written without imagination by Will Beall (of TV's Castle) and directed without flair by Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland), the story is a mess: Wooters' one-night stand with Cohen's moll becomes a relationship behind the audience's back; the reasons for the squad's secrecy (nobody's allowed to know they're cops) are vague and unconvincing; O'Mara's wife is against the idea one minute, helping him choose candidates the next. Flitting between over-the-top violence, grim moral posturing, matinee thrills, and slow-motion quasi-Untouchables maneuvers, this is a broad, two-dimensional crime noir that thinks it's deeper and smarter than it is.