“Ah, de children of de night!” Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) first appears in Gangster Squad pretending to be Bela Lugosi. It’s an outrageous, silly moment, set late-at-night near the Hollywood sign, there might even be moonlight. He’s lording over a lesser gangster, extolling his power, gesturing toward those “children,” a pair of coyotes hanging around because, he says so menacingly, when they see him, “Dey know dey’re getting a treat.”
That treat will be, very literally, the entrails of the lesser gangster, who is immediately and brutally murdered in this brief introductory scene. But the poor man’s suffering is not the point here. Rather, it Cohen’s many excesses, his outsized ego, his grand gestures, his big putty (or putty-like) nose. Penn makes it all extra-huge, perversely comic, and not a little disconcerting. And for that, you might feel moderately grateful. For the rest of Gangster Squad is a hackneyed mess, the squad members a bunch of LA cops who are too corny to generate much concern, their fates sealed by the clichés they carry.
That’s not to say that the move gets the period wrong, exactly, or misrepresents the ways gangsters and cops behaved. Life magazine’s spread of photos showing Mickey Cohen lounging with his wife in sunny California suggest he had his own corny sense of how to self-represent and felt confident enough that media and consumers went along with whatever fantasy he was offering. Still, the combination of sensationalism and banality in Gangster Squad is something else, namely, a movie that includes a credit line for “Milk Skinned Blonde” (played by a young woman and likely aspiring person named Ambyr Childers).
As his first scene implies, Cohen is the primary-big-fat target for the squad, initiated by LAPD chief William H. Parker (a frighteningly beat-down facsimile of Nick Nolte), who’s sick and tired of the bad guys running his town. Accompanied in most scenes by his driver, one young and whippersnappery Daryl Gates (Josh Pence) — who will, of course, mature into the monstrous patriarch of the ethical and legal abuses known as CRASH and Rampart (subjects of other, generally better movies) — Parker recruits the ultra-upright Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin). In turn, this WWII veteran recruits an unbelievably one-from-every-food-group team, including a black one (Anthony Mackie as a uni named Harris, mad that heroin is ruining the streets on his beat), a Hispanic one (Michael Peña as Navidad Ramirez, who tags along with the aging sharpshooter, Hopalong, played by Robert Patrick), and a nerd named Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi), also a war vet and “he best wire man in the department,” as you learn from O’Mara’s decidedly un-hardboiled narrating.
The third vet on board is Wooters (Ryan Gosling), cynical since his return, just looking to get by and make a quick buck. For a minute, the premise is full of possibilities, that the men who’ve been to war now see the world differently, and lament the short-sightedness of the over-consuming twits running around with newfangled multi-shot weapons. But the movie doesn’t follow through on that idea. Instead, Gangster Squad goes for rote plotting: O’Mara’s a standard issue hero. And Wooters’ about to be one, moved to join the team by the murder of a shoeshine he knows, one of those dead meat characters who exist to motivate the leads into action. This slow motion death scene — during a hit on someone else on the sidewalk outside the blandly deco-ish nightclub Slapsy Maxie’s — is another one of those excessive moments, grinding on for long moments when you know where it’s going before anyone inside the story, apparently. That also makes it one of those moments that makes you wish you were watching a smarter movie, one that knew you had seen this scene before, in a thousand other movies.
But no. Gangster Squad is exactly like those thousand other movies, except not so charming as Warner Bros’s earlier versions, the gorgeous black-and-whites starring Edward G. Robinson and Jimmy Cagney. The new movie’s charmlessness — that is, the staleness — is very soon overpowering. Everyone here has an obvious path: Parker’s got a desk to ride, O’Mara’s got a pregnant wife, Connie (Mireille Enos), who tells him repeatedly, “The war is over,” but helps him pick out his team members because she’s one of those great practical-minded gals Joan Blondell used to play and Keeler has a wife somewhere, to mother his adorable kids, and Wooters has a girl too, the dame he shouldn’t be messing with because she belongs to Mickey Cohen.
As the sooo-perfectly named Grace Faraday (Emma Stone) tells it, she got into that mess because she came to Hollywood to be a star and it didn’t work out: so much for character background. Her liaison with Wooters (who wears a wife beater so you can see the cut of his arm, though you might wonder when he works out) is one of those movie-convenient bits, where they remark a couple of times how dead they’ll be when Mickey finds out, and also incite O’Mara’s schemey notion that she provide the info on a shipment or a joint the squad needs to break up in order to end Cohen’s power for good. And etc.
The squad’s effort is predictable, though the film has some predictable fun showing their ineptitude: they wreak some mayhem, they blow up stuff they shouldn’t, and they preposterously keep their identities secret from Cohen and his goons, who should know (or guess) at least as much as you do. This silliness does allow more time for Cohen to bluster and rage, which Sean Penn does in appropriately cartoonish manner (as when he instructs a minion, “You know the drill,” and the guy hauls out a drill to ram through a victim’s head). Though Cohen never quite fulfills the lunatic vampiric promise of that first scene with the children of the night, Penn has the right idea here. The movie remains stuck in a much less interesting mode, celebrating the dreary inevitability of his adversaries.