The line between homage and cliché is blurred in “Gangster Squad,” the third feature film directed by Ruben Fleischer. Clearly Fleischer has seen a lot of movies, and so has Will Beall, the only credited screenwriter. Quentin Tarantino would be twisting familiar elements into unexpected shapes. In “Gangster Squad,” there’s more a sense of déja vu.
Although “Gangster Squad” is “inspired” by true events and based on a non-fiction book by Paul Lieberman, make no mistake. “Gangster Squad” is about gangster movies, not gangsters, and the references aren’t hard to spot. Elements from “Chinatown,” “Scarface” and “The Untouchables” abound in Beall’s paint-by-numbers plot. But “Gangster Squad” has star power and production values to spare, and sheer momentum gets the movie over the more derivative humps.
Josh Brolin is appropriately square-jawed as John O’Mara, a World War II vet now a homicide detective in L.A. After a daring, singlehanded rescue of a young girl just off the train about to be forced into prostitution, O’Mara is recruited by Police Chief Nick Nolte to run an off-the-books operation against brutal and fast-rising gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn).
O’Mara, largely relying on the advice of his pregnant wife (Mireille Enos) puts together his slightly ethnically diverse squad, and any resemblance to “The Untouchables” is probably the point. Anthony Mackie and Michael Peña provide the diversity, while Giovanni Ribisi’s character might as well as be named Charles Martin Smith in “The Untouchables.” The ruggedly aging Robert Patrick, sporting a Wyatt Earp moustache that makes you think of Sam Elliot, is a reinvented, non-Irish version of the Sean Connery character in “The Untouchables.” You get the point. These aren’t characters—they’re cardboard lobby displays and without commanding onscreen personalities, this movie wouldn’t stand a chance.
The only turn to down O’Mara, and there has to be one, is Ryan Gosling’s Sgt. Jerry Wooters, a guy who isn’t as cynical and jaded as he’d like us to believe, and who joins the squad after a shoeshine boy he’s fond of becomes collateral damage in a gang-related gunfight. Wooters is dating Cohen’s girlfriend, played by Emma Stone, because that’s the sort of thing that happens in this sort of movie and face it, he’s Ryan Gosling.
Even more so than the male actors in “Gangster Squad,” Ms. Stone absolutely has to rely on the force of her personality because her character isn’t cardboard, she’s Saran Wrap. Stretched too tight you can’t see her at all. Nonetheless, Ms. Stone is an actress you just can’t take your eyes off of, and “Gangster Squad” benefits strongly from her on-camera luminosity.
It’s Sean Penn who really steals the limelight, though, as the ex-boxer Cohen, who sees everything in terms of a fistfight. So heavily made up you’d think he was auditioning to be a “Dick Tracy” heavy, Penn is all but unrecognizable. The makeup doesn’t detract from the performance though, and Penn stands out even when retreading Robert De Niro’s lines from “The Untouchables.”
The entire premise of “Gangster Squad” begs the question of what happens when society feels forced to resort to the tactics used by the bad guys, but the issue is almost completely sidestepped. This isn’t “Zero Dark Thirty.” The Gangster Squad’s tactics aren’t legal and Ribisi’s character worries about them a little, but they look like fraternity hazing next to Cohen’s methods, which include tearing business rivals in half with cars and burning his own subordinates alive.
The action is for the most part well-staged, and a multi-vehicle chase scene with vintage cars and Tommy guns is particularly riveting. There is a little machine gun-induced blood spurting, but considering the R-rating, most of the violence is relatively tame, particularly when compared to Tarantino’s “Django Unchained.”
In the modern era, gangster movies have attracted major directors like Coppola, Scorsese, De Palma and Mendes. Fleischer certainly hasn’t emerged as an auteur with a distinctive style at this point, but he does manage his mayhem capably, even if he doesn’t seem to have a consistent handle on the movie’s tone. “Gangster Squad” is also a particularly handsome movie, shot by Oscar®-winning cinematographer Dion Beebe (“Memoirs of a Geisha”). The production design by Maher Ahmad (“Zombieland,” “30 Minutes or Less”) is eye-filling and the period look is lush. Steve Jablonsky’s score evokes, deliberately or not, a number of previous works, including John Williams’ score to “Jaws” and recent Hans Zimmer.
“Gangster Squad’s” release was pushed back in the wake of the Aurora mass shooting when an attempted assassination scene set in a movie theater was cut and replaced with a less controversial version set on the streets of Chinatown. The result is relatively seamless and the difference is not likely to be noticed.