Like that 1997 film, Gangster Squad shares a real-life character in mob king Mickey Cohen. While briefly in the former, he’s the gangster (played by Sean Penn, The Tree of Life) around whom the squad circles. (He’s also explored at length in a William Devane-hosted documentary on the Blu-ray.) That squad is fronted by war veteran/honest cop Sgt. O’Mara (Josh Brolin, Men in Black 3) and dapper bachelor Sgt. Wooters (Ryan Gosling, The Place Beyond the Pines), who recruit a team of like-minded lawmen, Untouchables-style.
Seriously, it’s so much like 1987’s The Untouchables that the team members include an old one, a nerdy one and a Hispanic one. And not only that, but — skip to the next paragraph if you dislike spoilers, however predictable — even the nerdy one bites it first.
Directed by Ruben Fleischer, the film found its release delayed in the wake of the Aurora, Colo., theater shootings of last year July, and then rejiggered (read: creatively compromised) in the editing room to exclude a suddenly controversial scene of machine gunning in a movie theater. By the time the still-violent, but semi-neutered Squad hit theaters in January, a public jazzed by an early Jay-Z-soundtracked trailer either didn’t care anymore or was too busy dealing with post-holiday depression to notice. (It should be noted that neither the trailer nor the cut scene appear among the Blu-ray’s otherwise voluminous extras.)
Critics sure noticed, only to clobber it. The beating is unfair as a whole, although there are elements that detract from what likely appeared surefire on paper. For example, as Cohen’s kept woman sexually pursued by Wooters, Emma Stone (The Amazing Spider-Man) looks fantastic, but is miscast. For another, Penn’s heart isn’t in his part, which shows even through his bad makeup.
And for one more, the second half offers only minor rewards following an interesting setup. In the hands of a Curtis Hanson or a Brian De Palma, the picture would better realize its massive potential; by contrast, Fleischer, a director of comedies (Zombieland, 30 Minutes or Less), hasn’t the weight to ground the material properly. By the time O’Mara and Cohen go mano y mano in the inevitable and abrupt conclusion, it’s so lightweight it threatens to fly away. —Rod Lott