Gangster Squad retells the stories of better movies

Originally slated to open in September 2012, Gangster Squad was delayed when the movie-theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, suddenly made a scene of gunfire in Grauman's Chinese Theatre "inappropriate." Four months later, a turn in the film's plot that relies on gunning down an adolescent risks recalling Newtown, but the proximity of horrible headlines scarcely matters — released on any day of any calendar year, Gangster Squad would be a crime against cinematic sensibility.

As Gangster Squad opens, boss Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), well on his way to establishing an empire of vice, is the snake in the West Coast Eden of prosperous Los Angeles circa 1949. Setting the scene in voiceover is Los Angeles Police Department Sergeant John O'Mara (Josh Brolin), an ex-commando-turned-supercop, introduced in merciless but futile action against Cohen's agents — O'Mara's efforts are stymied by crook-coddling legal malarkey like arrest warrants. Naturally, then, he's eager to ditch the badge and step outside the law when Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) offers him the chance to put together an unofficial unit to bust up Cohen's rackets.

The team includes Robert Patrick as a six-shooter-packing Old West holdover and Anthony Mackie and Michael Peña as tokenized black and Hispanic ambassadors. The only one given a story line to himself is Ryan Gosling's Sergeant Jerry Wooters, who has been keeping his sense of duty catatonic with drink and women — his shiftless character is established in watching him work the floor at nightclub Slapsy Maxie's, in one of the tracking shots that are director Ruben Fleischer's equivalent of a child's "Look at me!" headstands.

Wooters takes up with Cohen's arm candy, who's granted no additional depth by Emma Stone; this gives Gosling occasion to ply his shy-heartthrob trade, the swollen-cheeked, sheepish little boy champing to show off his cantaloupe biceps. It would be the film's silliest performance were it not for Penn donning a pound of putty to play Cohen. The makeup department's approximation of an ex-boxer's smushed mug makes him something like a Dick Tracy villain, and Penn's hammy Cohen quotes Bela Lugosi's Dracula when he first appears, preparing to draw and halve a rival behind the Hollywood sign.

Shot by Dion Beebe and digitally touched up with the lurid palette of a pulp cover, Gangster Squad on occasion suggests the better movie it might have been. This is especially true when it toys with the hyper-reality of showbiz law enforcement, in which cops pose as cowboys, and thugs make believe they're Famous Monsters of Filmland. It also gives lip service to more rote themes: "Can you remind me of the difference between us and them?" the vigilante squad's techie, played by Giovanni Ribisi, pauses to ask Brolin, who's later called to muse that, given his strong-arm tactics, he "might as well be Mickey Cohen." This is meant to pass for moral-gray-area thematic complexity, though in practice, it only helps Gangster Squad be simultaneously tawdry and blandly apologetic about it.

All of the usual cop-opera conceits — "duty," "badge of honor," "fraternity" — will be trotted out, but it's only the pummeling violence that stirs Fleischer's interest. With little pause, Gangster Squad caroms from crime to retaliation, from tommy gun assassination to heroin-shipment rundown, from a power drill through the head to a pistol whipping, each fresh bloodletting hyped by Steve Jablonsky's score or peppy period tunes counterpoised for ironic effect. In reducing the great themes of the Warner Bros. crime-film legacy to so many bases to be rounded, Gangster Squad desecrates the symbols of the movies it alleges to homage, in the process making a once-great language banal.

Other words long ago stripped by the movies of whatever meaning they had — "Inspired by a True Story" — open Gangster Squad. Los Angeles Times writer Paul Lieberman's book of the same name, which recounts the extralegal historical exploits of actual sergeants O'Mara and Wooters beside a breezy history of L.A. law and order, is the basis for Will Beall's screenplay. Contributing a few savory bits of hard-boiled gristle ("This cop came outta nowhere, like an early frost"), Beall also brings with him the irresistible backstory of having been a former homicide detective in the LAPD and the attendant claim to insider realism.

It's obvious, however, that Beall is mostly drawing on his experience with other movies, particularly the previous generation of revisionist period crime dramas, films like Brian De Palma's 1987 The Untouchables, which Gangster Squad's plot hews close to, and Curtis Hanson's 1997 L.A. Confidential. Unlike Hanson's film, which had a shoe-leather realism, Gangster Squad looks as if all its details — each shiny Packard and bottle of Orange Nehi — have been scrupulously "placed," still warm from the art department, while panoramic shots recall no terrestrial city so much as the virtual environments of Rockstar Games' L.A. Noire.

Nolte's Chief Parker insists there's a "war for the soul" of this Los Angeles, but it's just a neon haze of pixels — while the lazy, trashy Gangster Squad is damning physical evidence that the war for the soul of Hollywood is in a bad way.