Los Angeles in 1949 and the criminal underworld is cowering before the Jewish ex-boxer Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) who decided once he gave up the pugilism that he wanted to own the city, and saw off every threat the Mafia based in Chicago presented to him. Now even certain lawmen were in his pocket, and one high-ranking cop Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) knew he had to act, but how? By authorising a force of policemen who were able to work outside the law to beat Cohen's men at their own game - don't kill the criminal, just have The Gangster Squad ruin his power for good.
If there's one movie Gangster Squad owed a substantial debt to it was Brian De Palma's The Untouchables, that eighties hit turned cult classic which took a traditional look at the crime genre of the Hollywood Golden Age and injected a fresh perspective, mostly by amping up the violence. But if there was another movie it owed a debt to, it was L.A. Confidential, for there were many times when this came across like a De Palma movie infused with the sensibility of author James Ellroy. Except that director had already tried to adapt that writer, and the results had been the mega-flop The Black Dahlia, which did not bode well here.
That said, Gangster Squad was at least a bit better than that fiasco, but being set in 1949 you might have expected them to take their cue from a classic of that era such as White Heat - seeing Penn channelling James Cagney's performance in that would have been something to eagerly anticipate. However, what it seemed like instead was a vintage B-movie pumped up on steroids, artificially enhanced to stimulate a jaded twenty-first century palate, not without its worth but not a satisfying prospect either, no matter that director Ruben Fleischer had ensured it was easier to follow when there was a star in every major role.
Or at least a recognisable performer which made it easier to distinguish who was who, much as L.A. Confidential had done, so the leader of the squad, Sergeant O'Mara, was Josh Brolin looking as if he was chewing wasps throughout, his second in command Sergeant Wooters was heartthrob of the moment turned would-be serious artist Ryan Gosling, and the leading lady Grace Faraday, both moll of Cohen and having an affair with Wooters, was Emma Stone, taking something of a backward step in a part that was largely decorative even if she did suit the forties fashions to a tee. There were other "hey it's that guy" actors here, but familiarity was the main reason they were cast, or so it appeared.
Because they didn't get very much of note to do otherwise, with only two types of scene throughout: either there would be an earnest conversation about the pressing state of the operation, or the screen would explode in a hail of bullets as stuntmen flung themselves around, way over the top but at least not as ho-hum as the dialogue. A sop to morality was in exactly one scene where it was pondered whether the good guys behaving like bad guys was precisely the correct method to deal with the criminals, but of course that was dismissed - it's the only language they understand, so what you had was a team of Dirty Harries in period dress gunning down anyone who got in their way. This could be fair enough as the project was obviously shying away from the facts to concoct a brash fiction in the mould of the pulp fiction of yesteryear, and the look of the film with its sleek finish was undoubtedly gleaming, it's just that it would have been nice to find some grit under the gloss, never mind how many people fell victim to the Tommy guns. Music by Steve Jablonsky.