If The Untouchables had a little brother, one that looked up to and aspired to be everything his older brother was, but didn’t have the know-how or the intuition that the elder had, then that little brother is Gangster Squad. But this older brother was interested in personalities and people with depth, while the younger one chooses to focus on style rather than substance.

Crime lord Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), runs L.A. and won’t back down to nobody. No one is willing to try and bring him to justice, until one day someone fights back. Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) forms a squad including Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) who has an affair with Cohen’s squeeze Grace (Emma Stone).

Director Ruben Fleischer amends for the brutal 30 Minutes or Less with this mostly fun romp around 1940s L.A., but it’s not a patch on his debut Zombieland. Whereas that was a fresh take on an already well worn story, this feels more like a retread of older gangster movies. The characters don’t exactly leap off the screen, as they seem rather generic. A montage sequence used to introduce us to the characters in O’Mara’s squad is the most characterisation that the supporting characters get, and it’s pretty basic even then.

Gangster Squad is improved by the performances from the main actors. Brolin gives a solid turn as O’Mara, while Gosling proves to be the film’s bright spark, displaying an easy charm mixed with a sense of deflation. The supporting actors, Robert Patrick, Anthony Mackie, Michael Pena and Giovanni Ribisi are all far too talent for the minor roles they’re given. While their performances elevate proceedings, one can’t help but wonder what a more developed script would have produced.

The story is rather predictable, and not simply because it was ‘based on true events’. This does not seem to bother Fleischer as he is more concerned about making sure the film looks stylish, which it does. While the sets and costumes may not pop or demand that you admire them like in other period pieces, they do fit with the story, and some of the panning shots over the L.A. streets evoke a love of the bygone era.

But where Fleischer really excels is when he is allowed to showcase some of his flair for action set pieces. A car chase midway through is the film’s highpoint, with the sequence bringing a crisp energy to proceedings. It’s just a pity that the same energy is nowhere to be found in the rest of the film. One reason for this is that the script feels like it is caught in two minds, unsure whether or not to be an all-out romp, or a realistic take on historical events. This uneven tone makes you wish there was a greater sense of fun in the film. That or some actual depth.

At times it seems that Fleischer is waiting for the next set piece so he can shoot something in slow-motion; the quieter moments are fine but never truly engaging. There is a sense when Penn appears as Cohen that, rather than immersing himself in the role and becoming a fully-fledged character in this world, he’s being extravagant Sean Penn parodying extravagant Sean Penn.

Gangster Squad is paint-by-numbers in terms of crime drama, but it seems like Fleischer got over-excited and used up the best of his palette too soon, and the rest of the film is bland as a result. But when it gets to those showy parts, it’s a fun movie elevated by a strong cast.

Conor Copeland

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