Real events weren't kind to "Gangster Squad."
Slated to open in September, the original cut of the movie featured a third-act scene where mobster Mickey Cohen's henchmen fire their machine guns through a movie screen at the unsuspecting audience in the theater. The victims of the Aurora, Colo., theater shooting in July got a glimpse of that scene minutes before they were shot because the "Gangster Squad" trailer ran before "The Dark Knight Rises."
The trailer was pulled, the scene was cut, an alternative was filmed and the release date was moved to January.
But losing a climactic scene is the least of the its problems.
"Gangster Squad" is an empty suit of a movie; it looks sharp, but there's nothing to it. By design, it seems to be more about echoing other movies than telling the true story of the biggest crime boss in the movie capital of the world and the unit created to bring him down.
Sean Penn's first line as Mickey Cohen is a quote from "Dracula" delivered in the shadow of the Hollywoodland sign. As the head of the Gangster Squad, Josh Brolin delivers a voiceover narration so terse, so hardboiled that Jack Webb of "Dragnet" fame wouldn't be able to do it without cracking up. The scene that replaced the movie theater shootout now takes place in "Chinatown," the title of the quintessential L.A. crime story.
WHAT: "Gangster Squad"
STARS: Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn, Emma Stone, Giovanni Ribisi, Anthony Mackie, Robert Patrick, Michael Pena, Mireille Enos and Nick Nolte.
STORYLINE: A secret police unit is formed to break up Mickey Cohen's hold on organized crime in post-World War II Los Angeles.
DIRECTOR: Ruben Fleischer
RATING: R for strong violence and language.
Director Ruben Fleischer doesn't even limit himself to live action references. There's a shot of Emma Stone in a long red dress with a thigh-high slit that makes her a doppelganger for Jessica Rabbit in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit."
Cohen was real, though. So was the Gangster Squad, a unit authorized by L.A. Police Chief William Parker (Nick Nolte) to stop the spread of Cohen's criminal activities. The squad worked in secret and wasn't "burdened" by the need for warrants, probable cause and other legal niceties.
Sgt. John O'Mara (Brolin), who is Dudley Do-Right in a fedora, assembles a team that include a tough black cop (Anthony Mackie) who lost a relative to Cohen's heroin trade, a legendary L.A. cop / gunslinger (Robert Patrick), his Hispanic apprentice (Michael Pena) and a tech guru (Giovanni Ribisi). O'Mara's buddy Sgt. Jerry Wooters originally begs off - he's the kind that sticks his neck out for nobody, don't you know - but then Cohen's men do something that makes it personal for him (Poor shoeshine kid. He should have walked on camera with a target painted on his chest).
Jerry also is hooking up with Cohen's girlfriend (the horribly miscast Stone), giving him another incentive to bring down the mobster.
The characters in Will Beall's screenplay are as paper thin as those descriptions make them sound. As for Cohen, Fleischer seems to have shown Penn a copy of Al Pacino's performance in "Scarface" and told him, "Don't feel the need to be that subtle." It's a performance as big and ridiculous as the prosthetic nose that takes up most of his face.
Fleischer ("Zombieland") tells the story with some visual panache. There's a flash-bang, freeze-frame camera technique that he uses in some of the gun battles that is cool, and there's a great camera shot in a car-chase shoot out where the shot starts behind Gosling leaning out the car firing a gun and then pivot swings so the camera is facing him.
But it's hard for a movie not to have a seen-it-all-before feel when it clearly is assembled from much better movies we've all seen before.