In the history of Hollywood violence, Gangster Squad scored a footnote when it was pulled from a September release, after the Aurora shooting for a scene in which gangsters machine-gunned their way through the Grauman's Chinese Theatre screen. It arrives in the January lull shorn of that conceit (which can still be seen online), but you can't help wondering if director Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland) cried at that snip. That's the kind of sick joke that gets him going.
This is not to say that Gangster Squad stints on violence: we first meet former Bugsy Siegel lieutenant Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) drawing-and-halving some poor schnook behind the Hollywoodland sign. Sgt. John O'Mara (Josh Brolin) is out to stop this psychopathic racketeer, and LAPD Chief "Whiskey Bill" Parker (Nick Nolte) has suggested he leave his badge at home and form an off-the-books team, using his WWII guerrilla training to take down Cohen.
They're the usual motley crew: the wiretapping wiz (Giovanni Ribisi), the beat cop from the 'hood (Anthony Mackie), and a Texan plucked off the cover of True Detective (Robert Patrick) and his Mexican sidekick (Michael Peña). The final addition is reluctant Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), "a sheep in wolf's clothing" who has fallen for Cohen's latest tomato (Emma Stone) and is galvanized into action by the sort of melodrama that would be right at home in a '30s Warner Bros. programmer.
With crackling dialogue by former LAPD gang investigator Will Beall, working from journalist Paul Lieberman's non-fiction book, Gangster Squad is an enjoyable throwback, distinguishing itself from film noir with its deliriously colorful theme-park recreation of 1949 LA and Dion Beebe's burnished lighting, which makes Brolin and Penn look like they've been cast in bronze. Penn acts like it too; jutting his head forward like an ostrich (so as not to be confused with De Niro's side-cocked Capone), his Cohen is a feral, joyless cipher. He's no match for Brolin, whose Dick Tracy chin has never been put to better use. Gosling and Stone, revisiting their easy chemistry in Crazy, Stupid, Love, provide that anachronistic relatability.
Gangster Squad is no L.A. Confidential, nor is it much of a history lesson, compressing some 15 years (part of which Cohen spent in jail) into a few months. But it's a diverting look at police work pre–Miranda Rights but not pre–Carmen Miranda (Yvette Tucker). And if Fleischer's gallows humor feels out of place and his aestheticized bloodbaths distasteful, blame your discomfort on the off-screen debate that has rendered Hollywood no longer untouchable.