A Look Back: “Gangster Squad”.

At one point, a couple years back, Ruben Fleischer was that dude. That’s why I’m writing about his 2013 fiasco “Gangster Squad” — because at one point I, like you, was really, really excited about it. The prospect of him suiting up with an all-star cast to make a splashy, unapologetic gangster flick in the vein of the Warner Brothers silver screen classics we all devour like so much Halloween candy was a mouth-watering proposition. This was gonna be like “L.A. Confidential” on steroids — a prospect that, in theory, sounds more plausible than in execution. Sean Penn. Ryan Gosling. Josh Motherfucking Brolin. Even the supporting players — Anthony Mackie! Michael Pena! — were ace. This was going to be cool, right?

Wrong. It’s hard to know where to begin with “Gangster Squad”, one of the most lifeless, insipid and uninspired studio movies to be churned out like grade-Z meat in the last couple of years. Because really, Reuben Fleischer’s Hollywood career was once promising. His “Zombieland”, an energetic zombie romp that I didn’t care much for, was one of the most successful films of that year, and has since gone on to spawn an in-the-works T.V. series and an upcoming sequel (given the lackluster return of his subsequent two pictures, we’ll see if this pans out). His follow-up “30 Minutes or Less” flirted with darker, edgier thematic material but shirked away from the truly nasty stuff, wasting a talented cast of game comic performers in the process. You have to work pretty damn hard to make Danny McBride unfunny.

And so here we are with “Gangster Squad”, which, in spite of all our best hopes, turned out to be little more than a glitzy, air-brushed, empty-headed fiasco that shamelessly ransacks the plot and milieu of Brian De Palma’s “The Untouchables” — already a film gorged on artifice — and pilfers it with sub-Hammett gumshoe speak rendered largely incoherent by a cast of talented performers who look like they’d rather be somewhere else. But hey, a hefty paycheck is a hefty paycheck, amirite?

The plot is practically telegraphed from the opening shot: our “hero”, a sleepy, drunk-sounding Josh Brolin, heads the pack, or the “Gangster Squad” of the title, if we’re going to play into the film’s juvenile macho mythology. He’s a swaggering, cavalier Los Angeles deputy sheriff who has hand picked a small army of cops to wage a war against organized crime in 1920’s Los Angeles. His gang includes Ryan Gosling, an enigmatic performer who does himself no favors with a lifeless gaze and a Baby Huey accent, Giovanni Ribisi spouting era-specific slang as the requisite team egghead and Michael Pena as a doggedly loyal Mexican who is allowed to join the gang because, like, he stumbled into one of their meetings once so like, they have to let him in. Anthony Mackie’s in the gang too, and his character apparently really, really hates Burbank. Don’t ask me why, he never explains. One can imagine the screenwriters noting this particular touch — “it’s a character-revealing detail, guys!” — before smugly packing up their things for the day, another day’s “work” in the bag.

At the center of all this evil and idiocy is Sean Penn, wiping his chin and drooling all over the scenery as famed gangster Mickey Cohen. Let’s talk about Mr. Penn for a second. Buried under make-up and touting the facial expressions of a wounded bulldog, Penn here is plum awful. What a lot of people might not want to admit is that he’s pretty bad sometimes — despite the “greatest actor of his generation” hype, Penn is as likely to go over the rails as any other thespian whose ego has ballooned to the size of a Macy’s Day Parade float. But at least he’s the only one in this crapfest who looks like he’s having any fun. I mean, look at him.

There ought to be a drinking game where viewers take a shot every time Penn swaps his made-up Brooklynese brogue for a hammy growl that evokes Tom Hardy by way of a lawn mower. People would be blacked out before the midway mark. Even the film’s requisite violence is blunt and boring: there’s none of the sick imagination of someone like Quentin Tarantino or Nicolas Winding Refn at work here, this is all strictly going through the motions. This is the type of movie where a mob boss tells his underling “you know the drill”, and seconds later, the goon brandishes a drill gun and sticks it into the guy’s skull, turning it into macaroni. Cool, thanks.

If this sounds like your idea of entertainment, I say have at it. Me personally, I say life’s too short when there are still films by Jean Renoir that I haven’t seen. “Gangster Squad” once sounded like the cinematic equivalent of an unstoppable rock supergroup. Now we’re already at the “Behind the Music” stage.