There's a movie that Gangster Squad wants to be, and it would be so wonderful if it had managed to carry it off: clearly, there was a point where the intent was to make a movie according to all the very best clichés and worn-out tropes of a 1940s crime movie - the film being set in 1949 and all - but using the techniques and freedom of a film released in in the 2010s. Sort of the inverse of all those post-Grindhouse pastiches, for instead of trying to look like it had been stashed in a box 30 years ago and just rediscovered, it's instead trying to imagine what might have happened if you scooped Henry Hathaway or Rudolph Maté into a time machine and asked them to make an R-rated 21st Century action movie the only way they knew how.

That's the movie, as I was saying, that Gangster Squad wants to be; anyway, it's hard to imagine that writer Will Beall and director Ruben Fleischer thought they'd be able to put over the cavalcade of ancient plot points that make up the film's script if they weren't doing some kind of fancy footwork in the genre-exploration department. But Gangster Squad is not a fleet enough movie to actually carry that off, and except for the odd scene or shot here or there, largely doesn't bother making the attempt in its visuals: the story does very much feel like a game of spot-the-boilerplate done with its tongue at least hunting for its cheek, but that's absolutely not how the movie turned out at all, and instead of being a fresh, sudsy genre riff, it is a gratuitously serious, airlessly stylish example a genre wallowing in its own worst habits.

This makes the film, in general, not much fun, but it's absolutely worst of all for Sean Penn, who gives the film its one memorable performance - I will presently address the question of whether it's memorably good or memorably awful - as real-life Jewish mobster Mickey Cohen, and is the only element of the entire movie functioning in the "hey everybody, let's make a '40s B-movie!" mode that seems like such a natural fit for the whole thing. And as a result, he sticks out terribly: mugging and growling under a veneer of ludicrous make-up, there's quite a lot of bargain basement George Raft in his characterisation, and a much reduced Edward G. Robinson in his comic book thuggish physicality. If the rest of Gangster Squad was operating in sync with him, I think it might genuinely be a great performance, right up there with Al Pacino's Big Boy from Dick Tracy in the annals of wonderfully unhinged neo-gangsters. But the rest of Gangster Squad is, in fact, actively working against him, and that leaves his performance a giant, unmodulated kitschy embarrassment. Penn's fault? Fleischer's? I have no idea, beyond that fact that if you took the actor out, the film would instantaneously become quite a bit better (though still not "good"), but the trade-off would be irreplaceable in terms of its personality.

Alright, so Cohen is our gigantic ham of a villain; the rest of the movie concerns the squad of LAPD officers given a commission to go underground and knock the pins out from under the mobster's growing crime empire, to keep Los Angeles free of the Eastern crime syndicates and their wicked ways. The leader of this gangster squad is Sgt. John O'Mara (Josh Brolin); his officers include crusty old gun expert Max Kennard (Robert Patrick), nervous family man Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi), as well as Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie) and Navidad Ramirez (Michael Peña), both of whom are characterised about as far as "the black one and the Mexican" one, and no further. Indeed, the only other cop we really give a shit about is womaniser Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), who has just lately started screwing Cohen's mistress, Grace Faraday (Emma Stone). The plot progresses, without much haste, through the "comically inept" phase of the squad's existence, to the "montage of successes", to the "operatic fits of gloomy violence that call into question whether these are cops or merely licensed vigilantes" phase, and if there's a stop along the way that you expect to see, it's a fair bet that it's there.

Setting aside that this has so much to do with the real-life circumstances surrounding Cohen's crime empire in '49 and '50 that the film includes the "these are fictional characters, any resemblance..." disclaimer in its credits, Gangster Squad is just not very interesting; partially because it's stealing from better movies (the film wouldn't exist without L.A. Confidential holding its hand the whole way), and partially because the narrative sputters rather than flows from scene to scene, all of which feel more like bullet points than actual moments happening to actual people we care about. Nor is the writing's weakness limited to structural indifference: the dialogue is a horrible battle between the way that people did talk in '40s movies, the way that inattentive moderns think that people talked in '40s movies (or would have, if they could say "fuck"), and big old tubs of exposition, repeated often and thoroughly, in case we were too busy gawping at Penn to pay attention to the actual words he was saying.

The actors don't help matters: for such a good collection of people, the film is surprisingly light on great acting. Brolin acts like a mean, bullying drunk, Gosling is trying desperately to sell a soft, watery accent that distracts so badly from the rest of his performance that I couldn't even tell you whether anything else works or not, Stone has almost no handle on how '40s women carried themselves; and Stone and Gosling don't spark anything remotely near the chemistry they had in Crazy, Stupid, Love.

Saddled with this script, Fleischer mainly gives into it, or even worse, tries to iron out its inconsistencies and tonal jerks by painting everything with the same thick coat of stylised nastiness: there is a lot of exuberant violence here, some of it awfully good (there's a pretty terrific fistfight in an elevator), much of it just numbing. When they're not indulging in that direction, Fleischer and company go in another direction, making the film look as stylised and glamorous as they can, just like a '40s fashion magazine - did they have fashion magazines per se in the '40s? Well, if they did, they'd look like this: and Mary Zophres's costume designs, to her credit, are transcendent, physically appealing and period-perfect and a great reflection of the cast's shifting moods. On the other hand, before we get too excited about praising the look of the film, we run into Dion Beebe's horrible, horrible digital cinematography: it is a crime that the man who shot Collateral almost a decade ago should be so much out of control now, but Gangster Squad is dreadful, slick and shiny as if it had been covered with Vaseline, looking like the absolute worst-case scenario of the future of digital cinematograpy, simultaneously so harsh and yet so fuzzy that the actors themselves resemble CGI constructs, after a while. The color palette is lovely and accurate, at least; no garish post-production lurches to orange and teal, or anything.

It is, basically, not good, and not entertaining; and it really should have tried to be one of those things. There's just enough hokey campiness to be a film-breaking problem: less, and the script's laughable shortcomings wouldn't be as noticeable; more, and the campiness itself would have been the selling point. Instead, Gangster Squad is just a big pile of miscaluations, from the epic and grotesque, to the small and irritating.