We’re accustomed to finding Sean Penn at the scene of a disaster. The thing is, he’s not ordinarily its principal cause. The performance he gives in Gangster Squad, however, is such a creative catastrophe that anyone who buys a ticket should qualify for FEMA relief.
January has long served as Hollywood’s dumping ground, a month when movie rejects mingle in the cineplex with award-season royalty. Even by early winter standards, though, the latest from Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland) is an embarrassment. Initially scheduled for release last summer, the film was held back because it contained a scene featuring gunfire in Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. The studio feared the picture might offend, in light of the movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colo. Months later, with that scene removed, the picture merely offends.
It’s The Untouchables for Dummies. Based on a 2008 series of articles Paul Lieberman wrote for the Los Angeles Times and adapted with criminal lameness by rookie screenwriter Will Beall, Gangster Squad is set in 1949 and chronicles the exploits of a special unit of cops assigned the task of bringing down LA mob boss Mickey Cohen. You know, the way Kevin Costner and co. brought down Chicago kingpin Al Capone in The Untouchables.
The copycatting doesn’t stop there: The role of Irish tough guy, played in Brian De Palma’s classic by Sean Connery, is played here by Josh Brolin. His sergeant John O’Mara is the team’s leader. The role of swarthy dead-eye played by Andy Garcia in the earlier film is played here by Michael Peña, no doubt wishing he was back on the beat he walked in last year’s infinitely better End of Watch. The role of brainy nerd previously played by Charles Martin Smith is played by Giovanni Ribisi. This time, the character is an electronics wiz who hits on the idea of bugging the palatial home of their target. I won’t give the plot points away, but suffice it to say the two films share so many that at times Fleischer’s feels almost like a remake.
What Gangster Squad has that The Untouchables skipped is a love story. You’re likely to wish Fleischer had skipped it, too. Ryan Gosling plays veteran detective Jerry Wooters. Like just about everybody else in the movie, he’s less a character than an excuse for a period suit, fedora and gleaming roadster. Wooters appears to be in an exclusive relationship with his gold cigarette lighter, which he brandishes and strokes to the point of comic obsession — until he meets Grace (Emma Stone), Cohen’s moll. She’s all the reason he needs to want the mobster behind bars and sign on with the crew.
Raids, shoot-outs and car chases ensue. None of it is remotely new or inventive, and much appears lifted from more accomplished exercises in the genre. Mostly, it’s noisy nonsense punctuated by laughably bad dialogue, hard-boiled banter that Beall cluelessly overcooks.
What a colossal waste of talent. I can’t remember the last time a movie with this many tremendously gifted performers turned out as silly and instantly forgettable. Plus, you know a director is doing something wrong when he makes you wish you didn’t have to look at Emma Stone.
Gangster Squad is a movie in which much goes wrong, but nothing goes wronger than Penn’s Mickey Cohen. There’s no mystery or real menace here, just lots of latex and even more yelling. No doubt shooting for the breed of hammy monster that De Niro perfected with his Al Capone, the actor misses by a mile. His character is a cartoon and a bore. And that, along with Fleischer’s derivative direction and Beall’s tone-deaf script, is why a better name for this rip-off of The Untouchables would’ve been The Unwatchables.