Mobbed down

COLIN COVERT | Updated 1/17/2013

Stars can't save tired crime drama "Gangster Squad."

Giovanni Ribisi, Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Anthony Mackie, Michael Pena and Robert Patrick.
Warner Bros.

The problem with "Gangster Squad" isn't the florid violence -- we begin with a man chained to two revving sedans and being pulled apart and build from there -- but the shallow, listless way it cuts and pastes cop-vs.-mob clichés. Despite a cast of gifted actors, lush 1940s production design and suave costumes, it's bereft of inspiration, plowing familiar terrain past the point of tedium to impatience.

It aspires to be this year's "Untouchables." It's closer to unwatchable.

"Gangster Squad" is set in Los Angeles a few years after World War II, as mob tyrant Mickey Cohen builds a West Coast crime empire on drugs, prostitution and gambling. Sean Penn virtually skulks through the role, quoting Bela Lugosi from "Dracula" before knocking off one interloper. With top cops, judges and politicians on the take, Cohen is essentially above the law. He sees ownership of the city as his manifest destiny, taking it from the citizens the way their forefathers took it from the Indians.

That doesn't sit well with Sgt. John O'Mara (Josh Brolin), a two-fisted vet willing to go vigilante when the situation demands. Which it does early in the film, as O'Mara stages a one-man assault on a heavily fortified whorehouse to rescue a kidnapped damsel. The scene is inventively staged and effectively establishes O'Mara's act-first, think-later style.

O'Mara is tapped by the chief of police, gravel-gargling Nick Nolte, to form a secret team of honest cops who will take on Cohen unhindered by legal constraints. In a clever sequence, O'Mara's wife, Connie (winningly played by likable Mireille Enos), helps her thick-skulled hubby with his homework, choosing a team that will get the job done while protecting him. This housewife could have had a great career in the police force if she had been born a few decades later.

Alas, after this promising start, inspiration leaks from the project. Brolin's team includes Ryan Gosling as a world-weary wolf, brainiac Giovanni Ribisi, six-shooter-packin' old timer Robert Patrick, his Latino sidekick Michael Peña and knife-wielding street cop Anthony Mackie. Gosling dallies dangerously with Cohen's moll, husky-voiced Emma Stone costumed in full Jessica Rabbit sexbomb regalia. Their relationship gives the pair one-and-a-half dimensions, which is approximately four times the depth screenwriter Will Beal allows the other characters.

The squad comically fumbles its first raid on a gambling hall, but soon is ventilating antique cars, Los Angeles landmarks and stunt men with flaring machine guns. As the film devolves into a stale series of shootouts, your response isn't an eager "I wonder what they'll do this time?" but a weary "Here we go again." There's not much sense of danger in these spectacles. The only supporting character who dies is exactly the one the Screenwriter's Playbook requires.

Anyone with knowledge of L.A. history will find the story so wildly inaccurate as to be almost entertaining. At the fade-out, the narrator proudly assures us that the mob never re-established a foothold in the City of Angels. True, but the Latino street gangs are worse, and the LAPD is no bargain, either. Maybe they were kidding.