Sean Penn in ’Gangster Squad’
Sean Penn in 'Gangster Squad'

In the opening scene of Gangster Squad, a heavily prostheticized Sean Penn oversees the execution of a man whose hands and feet are tied to two separate cars that then speed off in opposite directions, leaving the victim's body in two bloody halves. It's a shocking and ingenious way to open a movie; unfortunately, it's the only creative moment in Gangster Squad.

Los Angeles in the 1940s and 50s answers to one man: Mickey Cohen (Penn), a ruthless former boxer from New York whose crime reach extends from whorehouses to protection rackets. He's got almost every cop in his pocket, so gruff police chief Bill Parker (Nick Nolte) commissions try-hard detective John O'Mara (Josh Brolin) to helm an off-the-books guerilla assault on Cohen's operation.

From left, Giovanni Ribisi as Officer Conwell Keeler, Josh Brolin, as Sgt. John O’Mara, Ryan Gosling as Sgt. Jerry Wooters, Anthony Mackie as Officer
From left, Giovanni Ribisi as Officer Conwell Keeler, Josh Brolin, as Sgt. John O'Mara, Ryan Gosling as Sgt. Jerry Wooters, Anthony Mackie as Officer Coleman Harris, Michael Pena as Officer Navidad Ramirez and Robert Patrick as Officer Max Kennard in 'Gangster Squad'

The team is simple enough to remember, since you don't need to learn any new names. There's Anthony Mackie as the knife guy, Giovanni Ribisi as the technical guy, Robert Patrick as the sharpshooter and Michael Pena as his clumsy Hispanic protégé. Oh, and Mackie's character hates Burbank.

That's about all the characterization you're going to get for these guys, who never transcend the roles assigned to them. Sure, it's cool to watch T-1000 throw up a coke can and shoot it eight times while it's coming down, but he doesn't have much else going on in terms of motivation.


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The only one who gets a bit of a dramatic story is Ryan Gosling as the risk-taking Jerry Wooters, but even his role is limited -- he basically spends the whole movie murmuring in a mousy Woody Allen accent to a very boring, non-femme fatalé Emma Stone.

Hovering over the rest of the proceedings is Penn, whose character is the biggest cliché of them all: The screaming psychopath who will stop at nothing to rule a certain area, in this case L.A. He certainly tries hard to make Cohen memorable, slamming his fists and referring to women in unflattering metonyms. But he doesn't make Cohen, someone who seems like the toast of the town, the least bit charming, and he becomes tiresome to watch as a result.

Director Ruben Fleischer puts together some stylish action pieces, notably the one in Chinatown and the climax (which seemingly has no basis in the real-life story). The squad and its surroundings definitely look cool, though the sleekness and bright color suffers from digital over-saturation. You can even forgive the squad's uncanny invincibility, despite the team seeming like a fair match for The Expendables.

But with a flimsy plot and cop movie tropes telegraphed from a mile away (e.g., the collateral damage that eventually befalls the crew is beyond predictable), Gangster Squad, as its villain Cohen unmemorably says, "is like a dog with rabies" -- you just have to let it die.

GRADE: C-

Follow Pete McQuaid on Twitter @sweetestpete.