Talk about a misfire. Gangster Squad talks about it a few times. "Don't aim for where it is," one character, a quick shot with a Sam Elliott mustache, instructs another after he misses a moving target. "Aim for where it's gonna be." An extra-pulpy 1940s crime drama with visions of The Untouchables in its eyes, the film aims for homage, but the impatient direction of Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland) lacks the grace and wit of a true noir. Instead, it overshoots its mark, landing where most failed genre throwbacks do: as a hokey misremembrance.
Based on the allegedly true story of an LAPD shadow unit that brought down one of the city's most notorious crime lords, Gangster Squad stars Sean Penn as Mickey Cohen, a boxer-turned-psychopathic kingpin with a scowl permanently etched into his face. Seriously: The makeup gives Penn the look of a Dick Tracy villain, and he plays Cohen with attendant cartoonish malevolence. The new police chief (Nick Nolte, talking like he swallowed Tom Waits) gives Josh Brolin's bullheaded but incorruptible Sgt. James O'Mara—a World War II vet for whom the war has not ended—the green light to engage in guerrilla combat with the previously untouchable Cohen. O'Mara sets out deputizing a rainbow coalition of vigilante clichés, including Black Guy With a Knife (Anthony Mackie), Craggy Old Sharpshooter (Robert Patrick) and his Mexican Apprentice (Michael Peña), and Brainiac Family Man (Giovanni Ribisi). Ryan Gosling, playing the flipside to Brolin's eternal soldier, is a fellow vet for whom the war has ended and who is content to slurp cocktails and chase tail. Even though he's given greater dimensions than the rest, Gosling's usual smolder is snuffed by Will Beall's underboiled script into pretty-boy wallpaper, only there to fill out cool vintage suits and engage in a flimsy relationship with the Gangster's Girlfriend (Emma Stone).
O'Mara isn't one for thinking or plotting—his entire plan of action is to charge into Cohen's various establishments, shoot up the place and light his money on fire—and neither is Fleischer. His film bulldozes from elevator brawls to jailbreaks to car chases to a needlessly showy slow-mo shootout in a hotel lobby, pausing only for perfunctory male bonding and clunky dialogue that spells out the half-baked theme of the thin division between the lawful and the lawless. When Patrick gives that shooting lesson by tossing a beer can in the air, Peña takes the easy shot after the can lands in the dirt. I think I know how that can feels.
Critic's Grade: C-
SEE IT: Gangster Squad is rated R. It opens Friday at Bridgeport, Eastport, Clackamas, Lloyd Center, Pioneer Place, St. Johns, Division.