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Gangster Squad shoots, misses

Cartoonish and silly, the latest from Zombieland director Ruben Fleischer verges on parody.

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“What’s your racket, pal?” she said.

“I’m a Bible salesman.” he replied with a rakish smirk.

“You gonna sweep me off my feet and make an honest woman out of me?”

“No, ma’am. I just wanna take you to bed.”

This is how they talk. Everyone’s playing an angle. Everyone’s cracking wise. Conversations are held to score points like volleys in a tennis match. You’re a tough guy or a hustler. A cop or a robber. This is life in 1949. This is Los Angeles in Gangster Squad, the latest from director Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland, 30 Minutes or Less).

Fleischer’s L.A. feels uncomfortably like a studio backlot — shiny and sterile and plastic — where the cars are free of blemishes and the buildings are all so freshly painted that you might be able to smell the coats of Sherwin-Williams wafting off the screen. In this dollhouse version of L.A. is Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), a WWII veteran whose penchant for thankless heroism led him to be a cop. But cops in movie Los Angeles aren’t heroes, they’re commodities to be bought and paid for by politicians and gangsters like the infamous Chicago emigre and former champion boxer, Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), who occupies L.A.’s underworld as an up-and-comer and fancies himself a “pioneer” bringing progress to the West. Fittingly enough, he has a monologue about Manifest Destiny.

O’Mara knows this, that cops aren’t saints, and any saint fool enough to be a cop deserves to be killed. Still he persists and his unrelenting sense of justice opens a door to something bigger: an offer from LAPD Chief Bill Parker (Nick Nolte) to assemble a team of specialists whose sole objective is to crush Cohen’s spreading West Coast operations. “What’s the catch?” you might expect a street-smart cynic to ask. No badges. No warrants. No nothing. Selected for the job are not the top-of-the-class guys but the misfits. Among them are an aging gunslinger (Robert Patrick) and his bright-eyed Mexican rookie (Michael Pena), followed by a skirt-chasing bad-boy (Ryan Gosling) and a brilliant wire operator (Giovanni Ribisi).

Gangster Squad is a frustrating movie. It has all these ambitions — to be light-hearted and funny as well as to be taken seriously — which collide with one another so stubbornly that none prevails, and my only answer is that Will Beall’s script is just plain silly. Gangster movies have been around for about as long as narrative cinema. The very first Academy Award winner for Best Screenplay was 1927’s Underworld about a kingpin falling for his alcoholic lawyer’s girlfriend. To do any lasting work in genre these days, one must break and redefine boundaries; Gangster Squad feels bound to its predecessors to such a deliriously maddening degree that it feels like a parody of its influences for a good portion of the film.

At the very least, its players feel like children playing pretend with exaggerated accents and a warped sense of how to engage in gunfights and car chases. All of them are either unremarkable or cartoonish like Penn’s imitation of a perpetually pissed powerbroker and Emma Stone’s rendition of Jessica Rabbit as Cohen’s trophy gal. Ryan Gosling is the only standout, making the humor work and eschewing caricature for his classic understatement and toothpick-chewing cool.

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