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From left: Ryan Gosling as Sgt. Jerry Wooters, Michael Pena as Officer Navidad Ramirez and Robert Patrick as Officer Max Kennard in “Gangster Squad.” Photo by Wilson Webb
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REVIEW: ‘Gangster Squad’ aims for and hits hollow thrills

“Gangster Squad” does not hide the fact that it’s designed to appeal to the crowds as a 1940s-era shoot ‘em up. 

Sadly, the film underestimates its own firepower and ends up missing the bull’s-eye. And the few shots that do hit their mark aren’t impressive enough for the world to really take notice.

I knew right away that “Gangster Squad” was not going to be one of those crime drama masterpieces, much less a solid genre entry. Instead, what director Ruben Fleischer (“Zombieland”) created here is a popcorn movie, something that attracts those looking for an excuse to turn off the brain.

Victory comes easily in the form of well-choreographed action sequences, only to experience defeat due to paltry characters and an all-too familiar storyline.

The year is 1949, and the soul of Los Angeles has been tainted by Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), who rules the city with an iron fist. Hailing from the East Coast, this Jewish mobster has a piece of the action in every establishment there is, and he uses his goons and crooked cops to make sure nobody gets in his way.

LAPD Chief Bill Parker (Nick Nolte) decides that enough is enough, and authorizes Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) to cleanse the city of its criminal underworld. O’Mara creates an “off-the-books” special unit, recruiting five additional men to accomplish one goal: bring down Cohen’s empire by any means.

Action is the primary strength of “Gangster Squad,” and I promise you, you’ll get plenty of it. Each action sequence — the drug busting car chase, the raid on the Slapsy Maxie’s nightclub, the Chinatown shootout, and the Plaza Hotel climax — is well executed and bristling with weaponry. Of course, the action would not have been possible without the sensational visual aesthetic commonly seen in the pulp magazines of the time. Ah, the nostalgia of it all.

The pulpy vibe works both ways, however. I think Fleischer was so focused on creating a crowd-pleasing action film that he forgot to develop his supporting characters, leaving us with cardboard stereotypes. Furthermore, his claim that “Gangster Squad” is based on a true story is not to be taken seriously; how can anyone believe that claim when there are cops and gangsters wielding weapons in an impossible manner?

Moviegoers might also yawn the moment they realize this story is, at its heart, a sleeker West Coast version of “The Untouchables.” Powerful mobster controls the land, a couple do-gooders vow to stop him, and complications arise when some of them die, blah blah blah. There aren’t any intriguing twists or turns to make this archetypal narrative worth viewing twice.

Another glaring point lies within cinematographer Dion Beebe’s decision to shoot the movie with a digital camera. The image quality comes off as glossy and clean, which doesn’t fit the 1940s environment and adds to the movie’s already shallow nature. If you happen to be someone who isn’t sure whether film is superior to digital or vice versa, you will learn, as I did, that “Gangster Squad” is testament to the disadvantages of digital photography.

If it weren’t for Josh Brolin and Sean Penn, “Gangster Squad” would have collapsed due to blood loss from bullet holes. From what Brolin demonstrates, John O’Mara is the only lawman you can find reason to care about, whether he is on the streets or at home.

As for Penn, he imbues the power-hungry Mickey Cohen with a watchable mixture of ferocity and intensity.

Ryan Gosling’s performance as the handsome Sgt. Jerry Wooters borders on emotionless, making you wonder whether he had any genuine interest in this film. His love interest, played by Emma Stone, never elaborates on why her Grace Faraday dates Cohen. In fact, the only function she serves here is eye candy. Stone certainly looks fine, but that’s all she does.

While it does matter how much ammunition a Tommy Gun has, it matters a lot more as to how it is used. “Gangster Squad,” being that Tommy Gun, doesn’t pick its shots wisely.

This grossly exaggerated, over-the-top action flick is guaranteed to deliver thrills, but it is too hollow to put up a fight in the long run.

MPAA Rating: R for strong violence and language

Running time: 1 hour 53 minutes

Playing: General release