January slouches on with the release of Gangster Squad, a bloody revision of the old Warner Bros. crime films of the 1930s. The story begins in 1949 in Los Angeles, a city thick with vice and corruption, where snarling mob boss Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) is determined to take over the town. Cohen owns any number of cops and judges, and his dope and prostitution rackets are thus untouchable. This doesn’t sit well with one straight-arrow sergeant, John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), a square-jawed war vet with an inflamed sense of justice and a respect for due process that’s barely vestigial. These qualities appeal to new police chief William Parker (Nick Nolte), who directs O’Mara to assemble a squad of fellow two-fisted idealists that will operate outside the law, smash Cohen’s operations, and send him packing.

In a rather contemporary manner, O’Mara recruits one black cop (Anthony Mackie), one Hispanic (Michael Peña), one colorful old coot (Robert Patrick), and one youngish tech nerd (Giovanni Ribisi). More centrally, he brings in a laid-back smoothie named Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), who unwisely launches an affair with Cohen’s moll, a vision in purple satin and crimson lipstick named Grace Faraday. Grace is played by Emma Stone, and it’s hard not to notice that, at age 24, she’s really too young to be a sayer of lines like “Where have you been all my miserable life?” But this is only one of the movie’s problems. (Another is that director Ruben Fleischer, who previously gave us the wonderful Zombieland, might be more at home with comedy than with this sort of violent genre exercise.)

It’s a good-looking picture. Cinematographer Dion Beebe (Memoirs of a Geisha) gives the Deco sets a silky gleam, and he’s no slouch at action, of which there’s lots. In fact, the movie could be fun for fans of smash-and-clamor—car chases, gun fights, and brutal smackdowns abound. But all of this set-piece razzamatazz can’t obscure the fact that there’s virtually no character development, and therefore no reason to care about any of the characters. Despite occasional interactions with his pregnant wife (Mireille Enos, of AMC’s The Killing), Brolin’s O’Mara is purely a squint-eyed avenger, entirely intent on fighting what someone actually calls “a war for the soul of L.A.” Mackie and Peña, such good actors, are on hand mainly to be black and Hispanic. Ribisi, as the team’s wire-tap expert, manages to bring some warmth to the role of a devoted family man conflicted about being drawn into such dangerous exploits; but Patrick registers only as an Old West throwback with little to say and nothing to do but twirl his big revolver.

Gosling creates a different sort of problem. Despite the de-rigueur roomy suits and snazzy fedoras, his performance has no period flavor—we don’t get any sense that Wooters is a man who endured the Depression and weathered the war years. In fact, this character isn’t a whole lot different from the amiable chick-chaser Gosling played in Crazy, Stupid, Love (in which Stone was also his love interest). He seems to have been transported from that movie to this one for no helpful purpose.

Then there’s Sean Penn, whose over-the-top-and-out-the-window performance struck me as borderline ludicrous. His Cohen is a frothing megalomaniac, and nothing else. We understand this early on, when we see the vile mob chief venting his displeasure on a luckless hood by attaching his arms to one car and his legs to another and then sending the two vehicles speeding off in opposite directions. This is a very bad guy—we get it. And we keep getting it, from one enthusiastically nasty scene to another. Before long it feels as if we’re the ones being bludgeoned to death—with merciless over-acting. 

The film is based on a true-crime book by Paul Lieberman, and was scripted by TV vet Will Beall—a onetime L.A. homicide detective. This certainly sounds promising. But the picture originally contained a shootout in a movie theater, and in the wake of last summer’s theater massacre in Aurora, Colorado, it was decided that the shootout scene should be excised, and the movie substantially reedited. Which is why we find Gangster Squad, originally intended for release last September, now crawling into view in the film-dumping month of January. Where it unfortunately seems right at home.