The stylishly empty period crime drama Gangster Squad, from Zombieland director Ruben Fleischer, is ostensibly based on a true story, but it steals liberally from James Ellroy, Dick Tracy, and The Untouchables, and it seems hell-bent on topping its transparent inspirations in at least one crucial respect: the volume, intensity, and ubiquity of its wall-to-wall violence. The film serves as yet another dispiriting reminder that while the MPAA can be squeamish and hypocritical about depictions of sexuality, filmmakers can nevertheless flood the screen with enough carnage for a world war or two, yet walk away with an R rating. Gangster Squad isn’t an exploration or condemnation of violence so much a mindless celebration of bloodshed in pursuit of justice. There’s a distinct irony in the film’s heroes (Josh Brolin and Ryan Gosling) defeating fascism abroad in World War II, only to bring order to post-war Los Angeles through massive, illicitly sanctioned displays of über-violence, sabotage, and destruction. But the film is too dim-witted and enamored of coolly stylized mayhem to acknowledge the contradiction, let alone critique it.
Lantern-jawed Brolin stars as a heroic detective in post-war Los Angeles assigned by his superior (Nick Nolte) to assemble a group of incorruptible badasses to wage war against the crime empire of Mickey Cohen, played by Sean Penn as a sneering heavy with the coiled body language of the boxer he once was, and a heart of pure evil. Brolin’s team of Untouchables includes charming ladies’ man Gosling (who has finally reached the level of glib self-parody), weasel-faced electronics whiz Giovanni Ribisi, hot-headed Anthony Mackie, and sharpshooter Robert Patrick, whose performance as an anachronistic cowboy feels like a feature-length homage to Sam Elliott. Nolte tells Brolin and his men to venture far outside the law and destroy Cohen’s outfit, though Brolin’s gang of hoodlums for truth, justice, and the American way don’t need much encouragement in that department.
Late in the film, Ribisi asks Brolin whether maybe there’s something a little troubling or even hypocritical about their gangster-smashing squad trying to destroy Cohen’s empire using tactics even the vicious Cohen might find excessively destructive, but the film is so unrelentingly positive and unambiguous in its depiction of righteous violence that this stab at moral ambiguity feels arbitrary and halfhearted. Gangster Squad aims for the pop-operatic intensity of The Untouchables, but ends up feeling like a savage, simple-minded comic strip. Thanks to Dion Beebe’s gorgeous cinematography, an exquisitely costumed cast that includes Emma Stone (in the painfully underwritten role of a moll sleeping with both Penn and Gosling), and overall high production values, Gangster Squad looks fantastic, but it doesn’t have an original thought inside its pretty little head. It isn’t a rousing exploration of the secret history of Los Angeles so much as an unusually violent fashion show.