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Warner Bros. Pictures
Sean Penn and Josh Brolin star in “Gangster Squad,” which opens today.
movie review

Plenty of violence, but not much substance

‘Gangster Squad’

Slick, sick, self-consciously stylish and defiantly shallow, “Gangster Squad” is one of those movies you can’t talk about without invoking other (often better) movies. A lot of movies.

“L.A. Confidential.” “The Untouchables.” “Chinatown.” “Bugsy.” “Dick Tracy.” “The Magnificent Seven.” “Rampart” (with an asterisk). Those are just a few of the films liberally quoted in Ruben Fleischer’s attractive but tediously derivative post-war crime drama. Even Michael Mann’s cheesy-looking “Public Enemies” gets its due in the digitally filmed “Gangster Squad,” which is so poorly lit during its climactic sequences that it resembles bad daytime television.

The action opens in 1949, when a pathological crime boss named Mickey Cohen – played by a prosthetic-schnozzed Sean Penn serving an over-salted slab of pure ham – is running Los Angeles’ brothels, drug trade and police department with sadistic fury. (We meet Cohen just as he’s halving an opponent for dinner – and no, that’s not a typo, the dinner is for a couple of coyotes.)

One of the few cops Cohen hasn’t bought is John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), a straight shooter and World War II hero with a pregnant wife at home and a yen for fighting the good fight. When O’Mara is enlisted by police Chief William Parker (Nick Nolte) to go off the books to wipe Cohen out, the square-jawed vet enlists a ragtag team of misfits (played by Anthony Mackie, Michael Pena, Giovanni Ribisi and Robert Patrick) that could have stepped out of any war picture “Gangster Squad” continually references.

The most interesting of the vigilantes is Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), who, early in the film, becomes entangled with Cohen’s main squeeze, a creamy, Jessica Rabbit-esque bombshell named Grace. Lucky for viewers that Grace is played by the sensational Emma Stone, giving them a chance once again to luxuriate in the chemistry she and Gosling can generate in just one smoldering glance. Lucky, too, that Fleischer has cast “The Killing’s” Mireille Enos as O’Mara’s spirited wife Connie, who, as channeled through Enos’ naturalism and warmth, cuts right through her husband’s macho posturing.

But, really, “Gangster Squad” is all about macho posturing – or, more accurately, boys and their toys, which in this case include guns, cars, fedoras, more guns, cigarettes, studied nonchalance and women cosmeticized, coiffed and costumed to look like hard-edged china dolls. As an exercise in fetish worship, “Gangster Squad” trafficks in the same glib violence and excess as Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained.” But unlike “Django” – which uses spaghetti Western clichés to engage in an audacious but improbably potent interrogation of slavery – “Gangster Squad” doesn’t have an idea in its pretty little head.

This is doubly disappointing, because Fleischer made such a fiendishly clever directorial debut with the genre send-up “Zombieland,” and because the real-life origins of “Gangster Squad” provide him and screenwriter Will Beall with such a potentially fruitful subtext. In a blink-and-you’ll-miss it moment, Parker introduces his driver, Daryl Gates, who alert viewers know will go on to become L.A.’s police captain during some of its most contentious years.

But rather than explore the roots of the LAPD’s later corruption in “Gangster Squad,” the filmmakers structure the movie as a conventional – if often cartoonishly ludicrous – hero’s tale, the eye-for-a-blackened-eye brutality portrayed as the good guys winning by any means necessary. It’s fascinating that “Gangster Squad” is opening on the same day as “Zero Dark Thirty,” a film that’s been speciously accused of endorsing torture in the search for Osama bin Laden. With its high-gloss sheen, hardboiled timbre and love of slow-motion shootouts, it’s actually “Gangster Squad” that – in the words of one of its characters – blithely celebrates the bright boys who shoot their way to the top of their class. “Gangster Squad” may earn a gentleman’s C for style, but the moral of the story gets a failing grade.