By SEAN DALY
Times Staff Writer
Gangster Squad is a big lug of a movie, a hard-boiled actioner as guiltily pleasurable for its macho strengths as its cops-and-robbers cliches. It's the kind of flick in which tommy guns roar like howitzers, dialogue is always wisecracked and almost everyone onscreen comes equipped with a chin you could hammer nails with.
Set in 1949 Hollywoodland, a postwar playpen of vice and glitz, this L.A. story is outlined by Paul Lieberman's nonfiction account of gangster Mickey Cohen's attempt to corrupt paradise with drugs and gambling. But fiction is more fun, and Gangster Squad is fleshed out with comic book one-liners and all manner of bang-bang theatrics. It takes its cue from its style-over-substance setting: In the City of Angels, looks are everything.
It all starts with Cohen, who makes for Sean Penn's most "fun" role since stoner Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Here he doesn't so much act as seethe with style, as Penn plays the by-way-of-Brooklyn mobster with one-note homicidal relish, grunting and grimacing underneath equal pounds of thuggish latex and salted ham. When Penn's Cohen grunts "You know the drill" to a toadie, you better believe someone is about to get a power tool to the noggin.
As far as I can tell, no latex was used for Josh Brolin's jawline, but wow, that is one impressive chin. And you better believe he leads with it as Sgt. John O'Mara, one of the last cops not bribed by Cohen. O'Mara is secretly enlisted by LAPD Chief "Whiskey Bill" Parker — played by Nick Nolte, who now looks and sounds as if he's made entirely of gravel — to put together a team to take down Cohen by any means possible. O'Mara's pregnant wife (of course) begs him to be safe. Fat chance there, ma'am.
The most enjoyable part of Gangster Squad is when it becomes another movie entirely. And that movie is Ocean's Eleven. With all manner of male-bonding yuks, the ragtag "squad" is assembled with lawful, but loony, outcasts, starting with Ryan Gosling (think Brad Pitt in Ocean's) as Jerry Wooters, a laid-back, zingers-aplenty ladies' man who is finally drawn into the crew when Cohen's murderous streak gets personal. Others in our gang include Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie), a switchblade-fast African-American cop; old-school gunslinger Max Kennard (Robert "T-1000" Patrick, having a winking blast); and Conwell Keeler (typically squirmy Giovanni Ribisi), as a babbling wiretap expert.
The more gorgeous the set (including a reproduction of iconic Slapsy Maxie's nightclub), the better the chance it'll eventually be riddled with bullets. Of course, the prettiest sight in Gangster Squad — and the biggest miscasting — is Emma Stone, as Cohen's trophy gal who's seduced by Gosling. ("Who's the tomato?" Wooters smirks when he first sees her.) Yes, the two actors had sparkling chemistry in Crazy, Stupid, Love. But never do you believe Stone's character — smart, sweet, pure — would get involved with Cohen. An actress with more mileage would have been a better fit.
But hey, this one's ultimately about the boys anyway. Gangster Squad's original 2012 release was pushed back after the Aurora, Colo., cineplex shooting; a scene since cut showed bloodshed at a movie house. But the actual product, despite its nefarious reputation, is nothing more than an old-school, tough-guy fantasy. Go for the action; stay for the chins.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.