'Gangster Squad' Review: Half-Serious, Half-Jokey, Entirely Disappointing

Walking out of Ruben Fleischer's Gangster Squad, a friend asked "was that supposed to be serious?" I thought about it, and didn't have an answer. On one hand, of course it is. It's a big budget studio film, chock full of huge names inspired by an incredible true story. But you've seen the trailers. They intercut period action with modern hip hop as if to say, "This film looks serious, but it's light and fun too." Unfortunately, that's not the case with the movie itself.

Gangster Squad rarely mirrors the fun of those trailers. The film adequately tells its story, complete with the intricacies of a decadent era, giving the illusion of a classic crime drama. But that drama is mixed with slow-motion bullets, sped-up fight sequences and so many one liners you'll think you're reading "Tough Guys For Dummies." All of which would be fine if everything around it wasn't so polished. Is Gangster Squad supposed to be serious? Probably not, but because it never commits either way, we're left with nothing an awkward, mildly entertaining tale.

Directed by Fleischer from a script by Will Beall (who is writing Justice League ), Gangster Squad centers on boxer-turned-mob boss Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), whose reign of crime in Los Angeles 1949 is getting so bad the chief of police (Nick Nolte) tells rogue police office Sgt. John O'Mara (Josh Brolin) to assemble a squad to take down Cohen off the books, vigilante style.

Every character in Gangster Squad can be summed up in one word, mostly because Beale's script never gives them anything to do. There's the brute, the moll, the gangster, and so on. Each actor (such as Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Giovanni Ribisi, Robert Patrick, Michael Pena and Anthony Mackie) does their best to elevate the stunted dialogue, but very few succeed.

These people are cardboard cutouts, spouting metaphors about how Los Angeles reminds them of World War II. In their moments of greatest depth, they talk of honor, and discuss how actions of the squad would be inadmissible in court. Which doesn't make sense when the bad guys are openly shooting at them in public unprovoked. That wouldn't count as probable cause, I suppose.

Character interactions are ham-handed and forced. Brolin and Gosling's characters, the two heroic leads, have zero chemistry. The moments when they should be forming a bond — that is, the actual actions of the squad — are largely played out in montage. That leaves most of the fun stuff to the imagination. All the other squad members are even more bland ciphers. In one scene, set in a barbecue party at O'Mara's house, we're meant to see them as real friends, but their proximity feels so forced I was hoping gangsters would invade to give them something natural to talk about.

Meanwhile, from scene to scene, Fleisher can't seem decide if he should dig into the huge piece of cheese that's laying right below the surface or stick with the ambitions to make a serious police movie. A fun action scene is hamstrung by a terrible line of dialogue. A serious moment is ruined by an awkward camera move. Is this Dick Tracy or LA Confidential? It's not quite either one.

A consistent tone, light or dark, could have facilitated the story's blend of serious elements (such as family issues and ethical dilemmas) and penchant for flash. The film never achieves that balance, though. It's simply laborious. Gangster Squad is a mess. It looks beautiful, and everyone in it surely enjoyed dressing up in those gorgeous suits and shooting tommy guns, it really misses the mark.

/Film rating: 3 out of 10