Thanks to Raymond Chandler, film noir, and the world of fedoras, fast-talking patter, and gammy dames, we have a vision of Los Angeles in the ’30s and ’40s as a place teeming with seductive danger and existential wits. Somehow, strangely, that world looks less vivid in living color, especially when glazed over with the kind of glib slickness that comes to town in Gangster Squad. This film so wants to rise to the level of L.A. Confidential but has neither the confidence of artistry or that critical fragile chemistry of vice and artistic virtue of the earlier modern-day post-noir classic.
As the voice-over yarn has it, in hard-boiled patter that keeps going soft, this is a story about thugs on both sides of the law who don’t need no stinking badges. Josh Brolin, a street-savvy WWII vet now fighting the war on L.A., has been commissioned to lead an undercover, semi-vigilante posse — including bedroom-eyes Ryan Gosling and Giovanni Ribisi playing against his bad-boy type — to take out the gangster stranglehold on the city of one Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn, in good/bad form as a puffy-faced malefactor with a brutal lust for power). We see the measure of Mickey’s sinister amorality in the opening scene, involving one nasty way to die in L.A., and then the combo of sadism and virtuousness in the character of the gangster’s foe, played by Brolin. The stage is set for a protracted dastard’s dance around Los Angeles circa the late ’40s.
Somehow, though, the film doesn’t have the narrative power to draw us into its world and ignore the surface charms of its cast and kitschy period piecework. For example, as in Crazy, Stupid, Love, we can’t help but notice that love interests (and the case of strong actors in middling movie fare) collide between Gosling and Emma Stone’s character, a leggy femme fatale in the plot.
Gangster Squad is richly stocked with some of the better actors in 21st-century Hollywood and enough sexy fizz and action rat-a-tat to keep us tuned in. But it ultimately flatlines, and seems quickly destined for the small screen.