Noir is a genre that's tough to get right, particularly in our self-consciously referential age. Don't embrace the genre fully, and it's just a run-of-the-mill thriller featuring a bunch of nattily dressed people with a fondness for tommy guns; go too far the other direction, and it quickly turns into exaggerated parody (supposing, of course, that that's not precisely what you're aiming for, see: "Sin City). "Gangster Squad," from director Ruben Fleischer (best known for the horror-comedy "Zombieland") manages to land squarely in the middle of the spectrum, coming across like the brain-damaged lovechild of "L.A. Confidential" and "The Untouchables". It's a film torn about which direction it wants to head, as Fleischer constantly seems to be fighting his instinct to turn the film into a live-action cartoon á la Warren Beatty's "Dick Tracy."
In late 1940's Los Angeles, ruthless mobster Mickey Cohen (a gleefully over-the-top Sean Penn) runs the town, building an empire funded largely through gambling, prostitution and drugs. His money and power has given him the means to buy off nearly every member of the justice and law-enforcement systems, allowing him to conduct his illegal business dealings with impunity. But one seemingly incorruptible chief of police (played by living cartoon character, Nick Nolte), refuses to stand idly by as he loses his city to the criminal element. He assigns his most trusted and loyal man, Sgt. John O'Mara (Josh Brolin), the task of putting together a covert force of lawmen to engage in guerrilla warfare against Cohen in the hopes of taking apart his operations, piece by piece. Together they will be known as... (dun dun dun!) The Gangster Squad!
The screenplay, credited to Will Beall, based (one assumes extremely loosely) on the book by Paul Lieberman, provides each of the five men who join the cause only one or two defining attributes. There's Ryan Gosling's Sgt. Jerry Wooters, supposedly a smooth-talking ladies' man, though that characterization is halfhearted at best, since we see him fall in love with the first woman he sets eyes on. Next is Officer Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie), a black cop sick of the toll drugs are taking on his neighborhood. Then there's Officer Max Kennard (Robert Patrick), the old-timer of the bunch and an Old West gunslinger type. He brings along an inexperienced partner, Navidad Ramirez (Michael Peña), who is Mexican and...uh...Mexican. Rounding out the group is Officer Conway Keeler (the always welcome Giovanni Ribisi), a family man and the techie of the team.
The actors do what they can with the material they're given, but there's only so much to be done with such severely underwritten roles. Hardly any of the men get their one defining hero moment, which is necessary for these types of characters to make any sort of impression. Brolin pulls off O'Mara's bullheaded determination to succeed at any cost and he feels the most at home of any of the actors in the macho, pulpy world they're thrown into.
Bucking at least one of the conventions of the genre, Brolin's pregnant wife isn't relegated to nagging her husband to give up on his mission and stay home with his family. She's actually given the opportunity to take a slightly more active role in the proceedings, acting as adviser to her husband, hand-selecting the officers he should approach to join his squad.
Emma Stone, playing Cohen's girlfriend, Grace Faraday (whom Gosling falls for), is what I suppose passes for the femme fatale of this story, but she's lacking the dangerous element that define the most memorable characters of the archetype. She and Gosling have the misfortune of possessing mannerisms and personalities that feel decidedly contemporary, making them stick out in the period setting. But they do look great. In fact, the costuming and production design is the one thing "Gangster Squad" gets right, for the most part.
Fleischer's direction tosses in all the modern filmmaking gimmicks: slow-motion, freeze-frames, long tracking shots, and a digitized car chase that looks great, but is rendered nearly incomprehensible through some shoddy editing. He also can't resist piling on the gore: chopped-off hands, bodies burned and ripped in half, even a drill to the head. It's as if he knew the script wasn't there, so he had to distract his audience with as much flash as his budget would afford him. It all adds up to the feeling that everyone involved was content to go through the motions, settling for playing dress up in fancy clothes. If the outside is as sleek and pretty as possible, maybe no one will notice that it's utterly hollow on the inside.