In 2011, the computer game ‘LA Noire’ allowed players to live the life of a 1940s LAPD officer, drawing heavily on Polanski’s ‘Chinatown’ and the novels of James Ellroy to create a couch-potato-friendly version of life in seedy, postwar Hollywood. ‘Gangster Squad’ plays on public familiarity with the era – through the game, the books and the movies – to deliver a slick, very violent and entirely unconvincing recreation of the period: a movie inspired by a game inspired by a book vaguely based on real events.
The plot is essentially ‘The Untouchables’ goes west. Josh Brolin plays John O’Mara, the square-jawed, clean living cop tasked by a walrus in a tuxedo (Nick Nolte) to bring down the operation of gangland kingpin Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn, channelling Al Pacino in ‘Dick Tracy’) before the mob boss can fix a stranglehold on the city of angels. John forms a task force, hauling in interestingly named pal Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) who, unknown to O’Mara, is having an affair with Cohen’s squeeze Grace (Emma Stone).
The squad is rounded out by Giovanni Ribisi as the brainy family man with ‘dead meat’ tattooed on his forehead and Anthony Mackie as the most token black character since ‘Ghostbusters’ – which is okay, because he’s got a token Mexican (Michael Peña, who deserves better) and a token old-timer (Robert Patrick) to keep him company.
‘Zombieland’ director Ruben Fleischer keeps things moving at a breakneck pace, resulting in a handful of enjoyably pacy action sequences but lots of head-scratching plot holes. And despite some immersive period design, the visuals possess a bland, digital sheen – the climactic punch-up in a park looks like a nasty happy-slapping incident captured on a passer-by’s cameraphone.
Given the cast and subject matter, ‘Gangster Squad’ was never going to be a total washout. But it’s fatally ersatz, never coming close to recapturing the spirit and intensity of the films and novels it imitates, let alone the vibrant historical period it aims to evoke.