'Gangster Squad' plot full of bullet holes

From left, Ryan Gosling, Josh Brolin, Michael Pena, Robert Patrick and Anthony M

Some movies are inspired by real past events. "Gangster Squad" is uninspired by them, or anything else, but its level of ultra-violence has a certain dark, trashy fascination and curiosity value in light of real current events.

In this campy yarn of 1949, Los Angeles crime lord Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) is just a rival or two away from taking full control of the town's drug and vice operations. With most city cops on his payroll, the LAPD has largely given up trying to referee the Mob's bloody turf wars, but they're spilling over to the citizenry.

Looks like a job for Honest John O'Mara (Josh Brolin), the sullen sergeant summoned to recruit a secret squad of urban-guerrilla warriors who can be trusted to shut down mighty Mick's enterprise.

How grisly is the mayhem? The very first scene features a guy whose limbs are attached to two cars facing opposite directions and -- well, let's just say it's "Gentlemen, start your engines!"

It gets grislier, as Mr. Brolin leads his dirty half-dozen into the no-holds-barred battle (their motto: "No names. No badges. No mercy!"). Chief among them is calm, cool pretty-boy Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) -- more a lover than a fighter at heart -- with whom Sgt. John soon develops a budding bromance. Taken together, they're like proto-SEALs, with carte blanche to get their mission accomplished.

That means constant carnage, of course, and action sequences that aspire to -- but don't achieve -- the feel of "The Untouchables," hard as director Ruben Fleischer tries. I knew Elliot Ness (in the form of my late great father-in-law, E. Reid Fletcher, a 40-year FBI agent who chased Pretty Boy Floyd). Mr. Brolin is no Elliot Ness.

Mr. Fleischer (a TV director, whose only prior feature "Zombieland" was much praised) does provide excellent postwar-L.A. period detail, especially in the Deco sets and the men's haberdashery department. But neither the gunplay nor the production design can overcome the hackneyed script and cliche-drenched devices.

Take, for example, the obligatory fall-through-a-glass-penthouse-roof bit, during a fight: Ever notice that not only does nobody ever die, they never even get CUT? They just jump up and rush on with the fight. Since glass is transparent, we're to believe it's just one of those provident awnings that "breaks the fall."

And then there's those vintage automatic weapons of mass destruction -- the Tommy machine guns. Which brings us to the film's unintended, problematic relevance.

"Gangster Squad's" opening was postponed from last September -- in dubious deference to the Aurora, Colo., shooting victims -- due to a scene in which the gangsters fired machine guns into a crowded movie theater. Warner Bros. ordered it back into production for a script rewrite and reshoot. So it's been released now -- just in the wake of Newtown!

Gosh, what's a poor studio to do? Against its will, "Gangster Squad" drags it directly into the Big Issue of our day: Do cartoon movie violence and video games lead to real violence? Do the power and the glory and vigilante mandate justify "blowing 'em away" -- as long as they're bad guys? Your only moral obligation is to make them bad in your mind (they've done bad things to you or your way of life, or will if you don't stop them).

Ponder it.

Meanwhile, "I love L.A.!" says Mickey, like Burt Lancaster ("I love this crazy town!") says of New York in "The Sweet Smell of Success." With his freakouts and lunatic soliloquies, Mr. Penn chews up the scenery and is fun to watch. They shoulda given even more scenery to the gangster -- and less to the squad -- to chew up. Of all the women in L.A., Mr. Gosling picks Penn's moll (Emma Stone) to fall in love with. Oy veh. They lack the intended Bogart-Bacall heat, while Mr. Brolin's domestic melodrama is strictly TV depth: The fate of his wife/midwife (Mireille Enos) drew titters at the preview.

The rest of the squad (Anthony Mackie, Robert Patrick, Michael Pena, Giovanni Ribisi) are likable enough, if little more. Nick Nolte rasps out a few decent moments as police chief. Steve Jablonsky's good score helps cover the warmed-over "Bonnie and Clyde" slo-mo massacres and similar stuff stolen from "L.A. Confidential" (1997) -- a high-speed chase in Packards! -- leading up to the orgiastic final armageddon in which both sides are better armed than al-Qaida. All of it absurd, outrageous, objectionable on every level -- except as mindless, cheap-thrills entertainment.

"You'll be begging for a bullet before this is over," says one gangster to another.

Truer words ...

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