When confronted with a villain as viciously and brainlessly one-note as Sean Penn's Mickey Cohen is in Gangster Squad, I'm comforted by a hero who is just the opposite -- one who is multi-faceted, intelligent, sensitive, even, and who finds his counterpart utterly repellent.
Josh Brolin's Sgt. John O'Mara possesses none of these qualities -- at least in any sort of noticeable way -- and, in lacking those contrasting characteristics, destroys any chance of the type of emotional investment that would help an audience overlook the film's many flaws. O'Mara is given command of an extra-legal Los Angeles Police Department task force charged with taking down the gangster Cohen just as he begins to consolidate power in the underworld of post-World War II Hollywood. Police Chief Parker, played by Nick Nolte, gives O'Mara carte blanche in both assembling his team and in using whatever methods necessary to dismantle his criminal empire, with the understanding that Parker will disavow any knowledge of O'Mara's doings. Despite his apparent desire for plausible deniability, Nolte keeps showing up at gangster squad team barbecues and the like to offer encouragement. Somehow, this is one of the least grating problems with the plot.
In between barbecues, O'Mara and his team, which includes Ryan Gosling, Anthony Mackie, Robert Patrick, Giovanni Ribisi and Michael Pena, set about making stupid plans to knock over Cohen's various criminal enterprises with varying degrees of success. There would be more charm to this boorish, smash-and-grab business were it not for the twin secondary stories involving Brolin's about-to-burst pregnant wife, played by Mireille Enos, and Gosling's love interest, played by Emma Stone, who ever so conveniently happens to be cheating on Cohen with Gosling.
The squad's thickheaded bungling through the L.A. underworld puts both women in unnecessary jeopardy, an especially maddening set of circumstances given that you'd think the fact that O'Mara has a child on the way would make him tread more lightly. The entirety of O'Mara's character is baffling. He claims to live by a strict code, earned during the Second World War, we're told, and yet his code doesn't involve the health and safety of his wife and unborn child, nor does it involve the law itself. He's all too willing to toss all that aside because Chief Parker said jump.
Is this the kind of hero our society projects on to past eras -- an unquestioning, morally compromised, glitzy, but ultimately empty protagonist who seems to succeed in spite of himself? If so, it's going to be a rough couple of years for moviegoers who expect more out of people like Sgt. O'Mara.