Gangster Squad shoots and misses target

Like a poorly drawn caricature at a county fair, the highly anticipated film Gangster Squad is only an empty sketch of a picture — all outline and no filling.

It looked so good on paper. A debonair Ryan Gosling, a tortured Josh Brolin, a sexy Emma Stone, Nick Nolte and Anthony Mackie in a ’40s period flick about the notorious L.A. gangster Mickey Cohen, played by the venerable Sean Penn. Sex, drugs, violence, beautiful clothes — the movie was supposed to have it all.

Yet instead of capitalizing on such great potential, Gangster Squad always feels like a movie that should be funnier, should be smarter, should be darker and much, much better. Director Ruben Fleischer wanted the film to be this generation’s Goodfellas, but Martin Scorsese didn’t get to where he is today by blindly following the rules. As Ryan Gosling’s character says, “You gotta die of something.” And he doesn’t mean by watching this rather boring film.

The movie employs every textbook gangster trope — Josh Brolin plays haunted war vet O’Mara who puts together a ragtag group of police officers from all backgrounds to take down the evil Mickey Cohen. Cohen’s gal (Emma Stone), by the way, is a bombshell who just has to fall in love with one of the officers.  This plotline might have excited the audience if it hadn’t been seen so many times before.

That’s Gangster Squad’s main problem. Each plot twist is just as predictable as the one before it, each character is such a thinly written piece of screenwriting that you feel as if you’re in a videogame instead of watching lives play out onscreen, and each scene of intense violence makes you jovial because you don’t have to listen to contrived dialogue once again.

It would be one thing if the actors had decided to dive headfirst into their roles and give it everything they’ve got, but unfortunately it appears as if none of the talent decided to show up on their respective shooting days. Lead Josh Brolin is the only one that exhibits some sort of emotion, while his wife Connie (Mireille Enos) offers a nice rooted performance, one void of caricature and ridiculosity. When she cries, the audience cries, and when she’s had enough, she reflects the audience’s sentiments exactly.

The others? Well, Ryan Gosling’s squeaky-voiced lady-killer role is one of the least hackneyed performances in the film. Of course there’s a nice black officer who wants to take down Cohen to save his neighborhood from heroin. Of course there’s a nice Mexican officer who everyone else calls racist names but ends up respecting. And the two actors playing them, Anthony Mackie and Michael Peña, both excellent in other films, seemingly checked out of this one. When you’re in a gangster film, you have to step up the energy to more than just a soft whisper.

And on the opposite end of the spectrum, Sean Penn decided that there is no such thing as too much energy. Acting as if we were in a Shakespeare play, Penn decides to push Mickey over the edge, showing us not a man obsessed with power, driven by greed, but a cartoon villain, that could easily be put out with a large hammer.

There’s no real danger, nothing really to lose. People die, often in horrible ways, so that Fleischer could show off his special effect skills, but none of the characters are really worth crying over.

The film obviously aims to honor the gangster classics that have come before it. But by honoring them, Gangster Squad forgot to freshen up its material, and create an entirely new story. Just how fresh butter can’t make a piece of stale bread taste good, not even the glossy production design and eye-opening violence make this film interesting.

What makes gangster films legendary is the perfect mixture of thriller, drama, romance and a touch of comedy. But the laughs are scarce, the romance yawn-inducing and the thrill and drama stripped away by trite subplots. If the audience knows what’s coming, it takes the excitement out of the ride.