There's something off about "Gangster Squad" even before the title hits the screen. Los Angeles crime boss Mickey Cohen (a cartoonish Sean Penn) shows off his skills from his days as a prize fighter under a high contrast, heavily stylized lighting that emphasizes his strained veins. As he pummels a punching bag with ferocious intensity, the voiceover of Sgt. John O'Mara (Josh Brolin), the officer eventually tasked with taking Cohen down, explains the criminal's menacing grip on 1940's-era Los Angeles as if the cop were narrating a trailer for the real deal. From the very start, the movie presents itself as a cheap, over-stylized imitation of better crime sagas from several eras, landing somewhere between "Public Enemy" and "L.A. Confidential" without the same gravitas or consistency.
There's a strange tension here between director and material, given that Ruben Fleisher's two previous efforts, the enjoyable "Zombieland" and "30 Minutes or Less," were outright comedies. There's nothing particularly funny about "Gangster Squad," but a penchant for camp and eagerness to play around with atmosphere constantly strains to break through and falls short. While technically based on a true story, the very premise of LAPD officers covertly assigned to act as criminals themselves in an ongoing attempt to destroy Cohen's illegal dealings, encourages a kind of free-for-all pulpy spirit visible in the archetypes populating this cast. Along with O'Mara, a troubled family man and war vet constantly assuring his worrisome wife (Mireille Enos) that he's almost done with the beat, there's the naturally suave philanderer Sgt. Jerry Wooters, played by Ryan Gosling on autopilot, whose playful attitude makes him a natural wild card to offset O'Mara's calculated approach.
The rest of the team is mostly comprised of background figures bearing guns and trenchcoats. The only other substantial characters are the cops' scowling chief (Nick Nolte, also on autopilot) and a love interest for Wooters, the helpless Grace Faraday (Emma Stone, whose romance with Gosling weirdly echoes their onscreen romance in last year's "Crazy. Stupid. Love."). Fleisher has the referential feel of a Tarantino movie without the same enthusiasm for the material.
By design, "Gangster Squad" trades quality for genre allegiance at the cost of originality; it only stands out for trumpeting attitude through various filters that jazz up the action. This is by design; according to a recent article in The New York Times, "Gangster Squad" was conceived as "an experiment in next-wave noir" in the tradition of the newly resurrected "Sherlock Holmes" franchise. Both properties aim to rejuvenate the seemingly antiquated periods in which they take place with dazzling modern techniques.