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Bullets. Showers of bullets, point-blank bullets, target-practice bullets. When Gangster Squad was being edited around the time of July’s Aurora, Colo., theater shooting, director Ruben Fleischer (he of the tone-deaf 2011 comedy 30 Minutes or Less) decided to excise a scene in his new film in which gunmen bust their way through a movie screen and attack the audience. Now, following the Newtown, Conn., massacre, gun control—particularly access to assault weapons—is a hot topic again, and Gangster Squad’s audiences may still feel a bit squeamish.
This particular vein of violence may have been justifiable if it weren’t, essentially, all there is to the film. Gangster Squad, adapted by freshman Will Beall from a book by Paul Lieberman, tells the story of 1940s L.A. mob don Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), who’s predominantly shown throwing tantrums and eating, though in an early scene he has a man torn in half while tied to two cars, a rare instance of non-pistol-aided violence. The LAPD naturally wants to take Cohen down—or “wage guerilla warfare against Mr. Cohen,” according to the chief (Nick Nolte)—a task that’s relegated to Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), a cop who (stop me if you’ve heard this one) doesn’t follow the rules.
O’Mara, with the help of his pregnant wife (requisite injection of sentiment!), assembles a team to assist him, including smooth-talking, lady-loving Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), sharp-shooter Max Kennard (Robert Patrick), tech geek Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi), Navidad Ramirez (Michael Pena), and Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie), the latter two of whom seem to possess no particular special skill other than diversifying the crew. Before any of this happens, though, Wooters beds Cohen’s girl, Grace (Emma Stone).
The squad—title alert!—stakes out Cohen and his henchmen. And then they shoot. And shoot and shoot and shoot. It’s all terribly boring; the best you can do to keep yourself amused during the nearly two-hour runtime is admire the film’s style, from the period-appropriate automobiles to the men in hats and tailored suits and Coke-bottle dames with body-hugging dresses and red lips. Among the cast, there aren’t really any standouts: Stone is gorgeous and perfectly come-hither, Gosling’s his usual smarmy-charm self, Penn shows gravitas and is properly fearsome but really has little to do. The rest of the roles, it seems, could have been played by anyone, though Brolin is always a welcome presence.
There’s a touch of moral questioning here, specifically regarding the squad’s tactics versus Cohen’s: As Keeler asks O’Mara, “Can you remind me of the difference between us and them?” But the throwaway line isn’t enough to lend depth. Worse is a cherry-on-top last-chapter voiceover that attempts to make what preceded it sound like all sunshine and roses—some bullshit about protecting and serving—as images of happy couples appear onscreen. It’s not very gangster at all.