Tommy guns that glint in sepia aren’t a free ticket to the gangster movie hall of fame. “Gangster Squad” speaks the language of mid-twentieth century urban violence with all the subtlety of Scarface’s last stand, but the manic energy of antagonist Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn, “Mystic River”) only manages to satirize Tony Montana — and Penn’s performance was the best of the lot. All the good guys are too clean, and for the same reason that “The Phantom Menace” never held a candle to “A New Hope,” “Gangster Squad” does not do the gangster genre any favors.

Gangster Squad

At Goodrich Quality 16 and Rave 20
Warner Bros. Pictures

“Gangster Squad” is slightly hollow. It’s like when you try to explain why “Star Wars” is cool to your older sister and she regurgitates what you’ve said to prove she understands — something is missing, and you know that she doesn’t quite get it. Gangster movies aren’t about the battle, and they shouldn’t resemble video games. Some pastiche of period violence clips will categorically suffice as cutscenes for a period game, but we don’t want to watch a game; we want to see the spit flinging from the desperately lisping lips of grasping, imperfect men.

Take our hero, Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin, “True Grit”). Hardened to cold stoicism by World War II, O’Mara responds to being sent on a vigilante mission to subvert Cohen with an impassive nod, storms heavily fortified places nigh singlehandedly, plays up his sangfroid persona to a point of literal, reptilian unaffectedness; until, of course, the safety of his wife is jeopardized and he reveals his humanity. He then enters rage mode and shortly rocks Mickey’s world.

Similarly, Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling, “Crazy, Stupid, Love.”) doesn’t give a damn about the “fight for the soul of Los Angeles” until an innocent shoeshine kid he knows dies. Then his inner fighter, repressed over the years with alcohol and women in order to mute the ambient pain of an uncaring world, is reawakened with a silent fury. For a moment here, Wooters goes full “Die Hard.” Once he has an emotional horse in the race, he resolves to join O’Mara’s squad of underground misfits on their mission to take Mickey down.

The thrills of these bouts of unstoppable rage, banally sweetened by the aura of heroic righteousness guiding our heroes’ footsteps and the heroic resolve in our heroes’ eyes, are preempted by the film’s neatness and predictability — their families were bound to be endangered, the shoeshine kid practically walked onto set with a target on his back, and God help all the evil henchmen.

Despite Emma Stone’s (“The Amazing Spider-Man”) ever-sexy “Jessica Rabbit” routine and Gosling’s sweetheart swagger, despite a supporting cast that (for all practical purposes) is flawless and cinematography that delivers, even despite the shiny background tracks that serve as an effective counterpoint to all the violent montages, “Gangster Squad” can’t touch “The Untouchables.” Nothing really keeps it from being an enjoyable movie, and the audience is certainly never bored, but we were expecting something more.

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