So, a pretty good cast – Sean Penn, Ryan Gosling, Josh Brolin and Emma Stone among them – heads out in search of a movie. That they don’t find one is hardly their fault. Gangster Squad is to the great tradition of the Scarface genre what plastic is to cutlery – tiny, imitative, disposable. Their search thwarted, the actors are left with little to do but play dress-up, the guys in pinstripes and fedoras, the gals in satin and lace. It’s 1949, you see, in the City of Angels. The irony is worth noting: Back when it was really 1949, Hollywood made noir with teeth; this is nougat with pretensions.
The sweet pretense is clear from the opening frames, when Mickey Cohen (Penn), aided by a set of chains and a pair of cars pulling in opposite directions, treats a rival gangster like a human wishbone. Snap goes his bisected torso. Not to worry though – it’s all faux gruesome. Only our giggles are real. Surveying the wishbone’s remains, Penn squints his eyes and pugs his nose and starts his film-long feast chewing the scenery. Then again, with a script so thin, a guy’s gotta find nourishment somewhere.
Meanwhile, Sgt. John (Brolin) is busy rescuing a damsel in distress, a feat that brings him to the attention of the harried police chief and ushers in the alleged based-on-a-true-story premise: assemble a band of Untouchables to “drive that bastard out of the city.” Said bastard being Mickey, of course, who not only owns Slapsy Maxie’s – an art deco emporium where swells swill booze while chanteuses with fruit on their head sing bouncy Latin tunes – but is poised to overrun the entire burgh.
Keen to get on with the bastard-excising business, Sgt. John is quick to recruit Sgt. Jerry (Gosling), the single and cynical playboy to the other’s married idealist. We know Sgt. Jerry is a playboy because the first thing out of his mouth, as he waltzes all pinstriped and fedoraed into Slapsy Maxie’s, is: “Who’s that tomato?” Not to be outdone in the argot department, the satined and laced tomato (Stone) replies in interrogative kind: “What’s your racket, handsome?” Well, after such a meeting of the minds, it will come as no surprise that the tomato graduates from Mickey’s moll to Gosling’s girl. At this point, savvy cinephiles will recall that, back in Crazy Stupid Love, Gosling and Stone generated some major chemistry. But this time, for reasons perhaps best known to them, they can’t even light their Bunsen burner.
A few recruits later – the brainy one, the sharpshooter, the “Mexican kid” – the squad gets down and dirty, busting up Mickey’s gambling dens and disrupting his drug trade and even running riot in Slapsy Maxie’s. Oh, they’re a machine-gun blazing bunch, so ferocious that one of their number worries aloud: “Can you remind me of the difference between them and us.” Actually, no need. “Them” is bad and chows down on the scenery; “us” wears halos and the goodness shines through.
Taking an ostensible break from comedy (30 Minutes or Less, Zombieland), Ruben Fleischer directs the action with a similarly angelic touch. The car chases, the punch-ups, the shootouts – seldom has the church of mayhem radiated such sweetness and light. Even a trip to Chinatown, so gloomy when Roman Polanski visited, comes with bright sparklers and colourful flags and bustling vendors hawking their wares. Add egg rolls and a blanket and it could be a picnic – yep, where plastic cutlery is just the ticket.