The new crime thriller "Gangster Squad," with its swell cast led by Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn and Emma Stone, tries to capture mob-infested Los Angeles circa 1949, when Hollywood glam ruled the Strip, wiseguys took aim with tommy guns and fedoras were all the rage.
Those fedoras are a tip-off of problems to come — there are simply too many of them in "Gangster Squad."
Director Ruben Fleischer gives a lot of neon and noir-ish flash to the turf wars between East Coast and Chicago underworld figures for control of the City of Angels and their battles with the undercover cops obsessed with taking them down.
Screenwriter Will Beall, working with the tawdry true-life saga chronicled in former Los Angeles Times reporter Paul Lieberman's book, "Gangster Squad: Covert Cops, the Mob, and the Battle for Los Angeles," has packed the plot with period details, violence and the sort of pithy lines you'd expect bruisers to be spitting out in the 1950s.
But the soul of the era is missing, and with it any reason to care.
In Fleischer's hands, the high-stakes shootouts are as stylish as a GQ spread, but it's nearly impossible to figure out who's zoomin' who. Fleischer didn't have these sorts of identity issues in the hyper-violent fun of 2009's "Zombieland," whose apocalyptic road trip to evade the easy-to-spot undead put the director on the map.
"Gangster Squad" has a promising start: a grainy shot of a punching bag being sorely abused, including one great slow-mo jab that showcases muscle — specially the beefed-up biceps of Penn as Brooklyn-born-tough-turned-Mafia-wiseguy Mickey Cohen. It's an apt image because much of the film turns on how the onetime boxer is brutally muscling his way into the top spot of the very fluid Mafia operations in L.A.
But the powerful punch of that opening moment is fleeting. The movie quickly slips into something closer to a "Law & Order" procedural as the sprawling list of characters is introduced as well as the genesis for Los Angeles Police Chief William Parker's (Nick Nolte) decision to set up an off-the-books operation to wipe out mob influence in the city. With about half the force on the take and the scandal sheets breathlessly tracking every slip-up — a world so stylishly and memorably tackled by "L.A. Confidential" in 1997 — it's no easy task.
Sgt. John O'Mara (Brolin) is the linchpin of the so-called gangster squad. A tough but decent cop with a headstrong wife in Connie (Mireille Enos) and a baby on the way, he's no happier than the chief that someone is messing with his newly adopted hometown. Soon enough O'Mara has assembled his vigilante band: the streetwise Officer Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie), the ace shooter Officer Max Kennard (Robert Patrick), his sidekick Officer Navidad Ramirez (Michael Peña) and the bug man Officer Conwell Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi), whose strategic wiring will give them reams of info on Mickey's plans. Ryan Gosling's Sgt. Jerry Wooters initially declines, but some collateral damage during a shootout in front of one of the mob bosses' favorite Sunset Strip hangouts changes his mind.
Meanwhile Mickey, who was sent West to keep an eye on the legendary Bugsy Siegel, has gangland ambitions that are Hollywood-styled, complete with a Brentwood manse and a sultry redhead named Grace (Emma Stone) on his arm. His blood-drenched message to the Chicago guys to stay away — it involves cars, chains, coyotes and a body caught in the middle — sets the tone for the gruesome scenes the filmmakers have in store. The blood and guts get plenty of beauty shots from director of photography Dion Beebe, whose refined work in "Memoirs of a Geisha" earned him an Oscar. (After the Aurora, Colo., shootings last summer, the film was delayed while a pivotal showdown originally set in a movie theater was cut and reshot in Chinatown — same violence, different venue.)
As Mickey tries to slip the ever-tightening gangster-squad noose — and as the squad's questionable tactics increasingly draw fire — the movie finds some traction in a string of scenes that are elevated in the hands of these pros. Penn breathes malice into Mickey's every move, making a smile out of a sneer that is particularly malevolent. Brolin is appropriately stoic; Enos, who emerged as one of the sister wives to watch on "Big Love" and stars as exhausted, gum-smacking detective Sarah Linden in AMC's recently revived "The Killing," steals a little of the spotlight. And once again Stone and Gosling prove that there is more than chance to their oil-and-water chemistry, so captivating in "Crazy, Stupid, Love."
Stone's sultry voice and soft curves are a good fit for the mobster's moll in love with a cop. She and Gosling give the growing connection between Grace and the good guy a seductive power. But like too much else in the film, it's a scenario that is only half played out.
When the gun smoke clears, the body count is finished and the blood is mopped up, "Gangster Squad" is little more than another Hollywood wannabe overshadowed by the legacy of "L.A. Confidential," which not only nailed the milieu beautifully but also nabbed a couple of Oscars along with the bad guys back in the day.
MPAA rating: R for strong violence and language
Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes
Playing: In general release