Notorious Los Angeles gangster Mickey Cohen has been portrayed by several actors over the years, including Harvey Keitel, who copped an Oscar-nomination for “Bugsy.” Now Sean Penn plays the former boxer-turned-mobster who became the prime West Coast promoter of drugs, gaming and prostitution as a cold, ruthless psychopath.
In 1949, LAPD Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), a no-nonsense WWII combat vet, decided to take down Cohen, assembling an undercover ‘Gangster Squad’ of renegade officers handpicked by his worried, pregnant wife, Connie (Mireille Enos), and authorized by crusading Commissioner William Parker (Nick Nolte). There’s electronics whiz Conwell Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi), black street enforcer Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie), grizzled sharp-shooter Max Kennard (Robert Patrick) with his Hispanic apprentice Navidad Ramirez (Michael Pena), and cocky, womanizing rebel Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), who falls for Mickey Cohen’s moll, Grace Faraday (Emma Stone), as they’re waging guerrilla warfare.
Scripted by former LA homicide detective Will Beall from Paul Lieberman’s series of articles and directed with an astonishing lack of subtlety by Ruben Fleischer (“Zombieland”), this violently sensationalistic melodrama has a troubled history. A major machine-gun massacre that had been filmed at Hollywood’s legendary Grauman’s Chinese Theater - and was shown in the theatrical ‘Coming Attractions’ trailer - was scrapped after the Aurora, Colorado, tragedy and the confrontation re-staged in Chinatown. Then the film’s release was postponed in deference to the Newtown, Connecticut, tragedy.
What remains is slick, synthetic, cartoonish schlock. Despite occasional comedic moments, it’s filled with broadly caricatured performances that bear only a passing resemblance to historical truth. The real-life Mickey Cohen was known to be charismatic, charming the celebrated film colony along with journalists and politicians with parties at his Brentwood mansion.
What’s most memorable is the production design, including a particularly grisly, introductory killing staged beneath the famed HOLLYWOODLAND sign (it was abbreviated shortly afterward) and the glitzy, art deco nightclubs like Slapsy Maxie’s, where slinky femme fatales enticed tuxedo-clad customers.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Gangster Squad” is a garish, bullet-riddled 4 – a completely forgettable flick.