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Gangster Squad will likely be remembered as the violent movie that was delayed and reshot after one mass shooting tragedy, only to come to theaters barely a month after another one. If it were a good movie, this would probably be an unfortunate case of reality infringing on art. But Gangster Squad is bloody, sloppy and far dumber than it looks, a Hollywood spectacle of slo-mo bullets and explosions perfectly calibrated to be soulless.
Ruben Fleischer, whose first two films Zombieland and 30 Minutes Or Less had a spry and comic approach to genre, seems crushed by the weight of what he considers a Big Serious Movie, dressing up Gangster Squad in glossy period trappings and forgetting to have any fun with it at all. That extends directly to his lead actor, Josh Brolin, who continues his gruff Tommy Lee Jones impression from Men in Black III as Sergeant John O'Mara, who we are told repeatedly is the only honest cop left in Los Angeles-- probably because he's such a stick in the mud that the crooked cops are sick of him. O'Mara is charged with heading up a secret police force specifically dedicated to bringing down Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), the real-life gangster who already ran most of Los Angeles's underground and was ambitious for more.
"I want to talk to you about the war for the soul of Los Angeles." That's the exact line Nick Nolte's police chief uses to give O'Mara his assignment, and the dialogue only gets chewier and more ridiculous from there, with screenwriter Will Beall aping the hard-boiled detective films of the past with no understanding of what made that purple dialogue work. The story doesn't help much either, starting with two scenes of grotesque violence and then idling forever before putting together the actual squad you've come to the theater to see. With the help of his angelic, pregnant wife (of course she's pregnant) O'Mara assembles the customary blend of outlaws and roughnecks; the only one with any actual personality is Ryan Gosling's Jerry, a smooth-talking cop with a gangster for a best friend and a dangerous eye for Grace (Emma Stone), Mickey Cohen's kept woman.
An early scene between Gosling and Stone-- who were so fantastic together in Crazy Stupid Love-- falls flat under the weight of the old-fashioned patter, and it's a dismal preview of the many flat scenes to come, even among squad members played by greats like Robert Patrick, Anthony Mackie and Michael Pena. Everyone is acting furiously-- Penn under pounds of face-altering putty, Gosling with an odd high voice, Brolin with his locked grimace-- and nobody is getting anywhere, as the gangster squad embarks on a few half-baked schemes for catching Cohen with no sense of strategy or rising tension. We're told that Los Angeles is crumbling under Cohen's corruption, but we're never shown it, and the stakes behind all these bloodbaths start to feel further away, until Fleischer's stylized and slowed-down violence becomes dull, then repulsive.
Combining the worst of modern action sensibilities with a Disney World recreation of the past, while also wasting some of the most interesting screen talents out there, Gangster Squad is an incredibly frustrating start to a new year of moviegoing. It is not this movie's fault that it comes at a time when no one is especially in the mood for big bloody gun battles-- but that ought to make it all the easier to forget it.