Though it tries mightily, The Untouchables it ain’t. First of all, screenwriter Will Beall is no David Mamet. And as stylish as director Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland) can be, he just doesn’t have the cinematic chops to match Brian De Palma. Finally, while Sean Penn’s cartoonish scenery-chewing is good for a chuckle or two, it never comes close to the operatic menace that Robert de Niro brought to Al Capone.
Now, normally I might say that it’s not fair to hold these two films up next to each other. But Fleischer and his team invite the comparisons. Not only does de Niro’s menacing rant, “I want him dead. I want his family dead.” get re-created by Penn as a frothing shriek of, “I want them all dead! … I want their pets dead!” but Gangster Squad’sfinale tries to emulate De Palma’s train station shoot-’em-up (which was borrowed from Sergei Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin, no less) with a hotel grand staircase slow-mo tommy-gun battle that looks like an early ’90s music video. Though adequately entertaining because of its cast, relentless action and setting, Gangster Squad can’t help but play like a third-generation knockoff.
A World War II ex-Special Forces soldier turned cop, John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) is a battering ram of a man, tasked by L.A.’s last honest police chief (Nick Nolte) to put together a secret crew of LAPD outsiders and take down the ruthless gangster Mickey Cohen (Penn) —no easy job when greed and corruption are the rule of the day. In a twist that goes nowhere, O’Mara’s pregnant wife Connie chooses John’s team of incorruptible outsiders and —wouldn’t you know it, they’re a Benetton ad of multiculturism. There’s the grizzled cowboy sharpshooter (Robert Patrick), his trusty Hispanic sidekick (Michael Peña), a geeky communications genius (Giovanni Ribisi), a by-the-book black beat cop (Anthony Mackie), and the oh-so-cool and cocky Ryan Gosling. None are fully-fledged characters, but all look terrific in their period outfits. In case you couldn’t guess, what little personal drama there is involves Gosling falling for Cohen’s dame (Emma Stone).
What might have been Gangster Squad’s most interesting conceit — a WWII vet leading a team of cops to wage military-style warfare against a mobster — ends up being the reason the movie comes across as so incredibly dumb. Not only is O’Mara laughably bad at leading his men into battle, screenwriter Beall often forgets to exploit his own concept. For instance, in a decently staged car chase, it’s Cohen’s goons that think to use grenades on the cops, not the other way around. In another scene, the thugs pull out a military-style machine gun. Meanwhile, Gosling’s character implores O’Mara to get smart about how they fight. It’s advice that goes nowhere. For all the cops’ talk of “The War,” the only lesson the Sarge seems to have learned is “charge that hill!”
Sleek and stylish, it’s clear that Gangster Squad wants to be a brutish, pulpy pastiche. There are plenty of neon lights, perfectly sized fedoras and dames in red dresses. Art-deco is all the rage, shell casings ping off marble floors during gunfights, and the soundtrack boasts a playlist of well-chosen period tunes (the film’s most original touch). But the movie is too glossy to be film noir and too formulaic and shallow to be as hardboiled as, say, L.A. Confidential. Instead, Gangster Squad comes off as the most violent episode of Dragnet ever made —with its jingoistic, might-makes-right flag-waving intact.
Originally slated to be released last summer, the shooting at the Aurora movie theater in Colorado not only pushed Gangster Squad’s release to this January but inspired a reshoot of its biggest action scene —a gunfight in a movie theater (it now occurs in Chinatown). I applaud the filmmakers’ sensitivity to the subject of real-world violence, but can’t help thinking it’s oddly placed in a film that opens with a man being pulled apart by a pair of automobiles.