Taking its name and inspiration from a real LAPD operation that battled organized crime during the 1940s and '50s, the new film "Gangster Squad" dramatizes the story of Sgt. John O'Mara (played by Josh Brolin) and his squad's crusade against the interloping East Coast mobster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn).
Given free rein to bend (and break) the rules by the police chief, O'Mara and his men (played by Ryan Gosling, Robert Patrick, Anthony Mackie and others) pull no punches when going after criminals. Unfortunately for the squad, movie critics aren't taking it easy on the film either, with most reviews characterizing it as stylish but shallow.
The Times' Betsy Sharkey says "Gangster Squad" initially shows promise, with a "swell cast" (which also includes Emma Stone as Cohen's dame), "a lot of neon and noir-ish flash" from director Ruben Fleischer ("Zombieland"), and a script by Will Beall packed "with period details, violence and the sort of pithy lines you'd expect bruisers to be spitting out in the 1950s."
But "the soul of the era is missing, and with it any reason to care," Sharkey says, adding, "The movie quickly slips into something closer to a 'Law & Order' procedural."
The Boston Globe's Wesley Morris labels "Gangster Squad" "an almost movie." He explains: "It's almost entertaining. But it's missing the shameless insanity of a wonderfully bad movie, and the particular vision, point of view, and coherence of some very good ones. So it sits there in between — loud, flashy, and unnecessary." And despite the talented cast, Morris adds, "Fleischer appears to have left them all to figure out how to stay in the same movie."
A.O. Scott of the New York Times writes that " 'Gangster Squad' is less a movie than a costume party run amok … a hectic jumble of fedoras and zoot suits, stockings and cigarettes, and red femme-fatale dresses." Being "too self-serious to succeed as pastiche," Scott adds, the film "has no reason for being beyond the parasitic urge to feed on the memories of other, better movies."
Scott isn't the only critic to compare "Gangster Squad" unfavorably to its predecessors; Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post is another. She writes, "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." (Among them are "L.A. Confidential" "The Untouchables," "Chinatown" and even "Dick Tracy.")
Salon's Andrew O'Hehir has an intriguing take on the film, which he initially describes as "reasonably successful entertainment" and "by the standards of midwinter Hollywood releases, not bad at all." More damning, however, and more interesting, is that O'Hehir goes on to blast the film as "a complete whitewashing of one of the most vicious and racist paramilitary organizations in American history: the Los Angeles Police Department." With its simplistic take on Los Angeles history, O'Hehir says, the film qualifies as "lazy and mendacious soft propaganda."
Among the somewhat scarce positive reviews of the film, Variety's Peter Debruge calls it "an impressively pulpy underworld-plunger." Some "over-the-top" action notwithstanding, "every creative decision seems to be in service of telling the most entertaining possible story, backed by first-rate wardrobe and art contributions."