Flick's neo-retro to a fault, doll

'Who's the tomato?" Ryan Gosling asks, gandering across the nightclub floor at Emma Stone in Gangster Squad. Set in 1949 Los Angeles, when crime king Meyer "Mickey" Cohen was running amok and the LAPD assembled a unit to put an end to his business, the movie is full of retro colloquialisms, retro cocktails, retro cars, retro topcoats, and retro shootouts.

Gosling is Sgt. Jerry Wooters, a cynical cop with a soft, boyish voice and an eye for the ladies. Stone is Grace Faraday, who may have wanted to be an actress but ended up being Cohen's main moll. Getting together with Sgt. Jerry is probably not the best idea.

And Sean Penn, sticking out his lower lip and croaking out his lines, is Cohen, a pugnacious, petulant tough guy who oversees a thriving gambling, drug and whoring empire.

We see just how dastardly he is as Gangster Squad begins: A pretty girl from the sticks is picked up by a smooth talker, who says he's in the movie business. She happily accompanies him to an apartment building, where she is ringed by a bunch of goons who plan to rape her and then put her to work as one of Cohen's prostitutes.

Luckily, Sgt. John O'Mara (Josh Brolin), a decorated World War II veteran, has followed the girl from the station and crashes the party in the nick of time. He singlehandedly - make that single-fistedly - brings the whole operation down.

Remember Mulholland Falls, the 1996 crime pic about an elite LAPD unit charged with putting an end to organized crime? Nick Nolte was in that one - those cops were nicknamed "the Hat Squad" - and he's in Gangster Squad, too. This time, he's the police chief who comes up with the idea to form an elite LAPD unit to put an end to organized crime - specifically to wage "guerrilla war" on Cohen, the pugilist-turned-mobster. Nolte's gravelly voice has gotten even more gravelly over the years, but his bulldog mug fits right in.

What doesn't quite fit is director Ruben Fleischer's attempts at neo-noir. Sure, he re-creates famous Hollywood watering holes and trolley-lined city streets, and there's even a big shootout in Chinatown. ("Forget it, Jake," you expect someone to say.) But Gangster Squad's violence has a graphic, contemporary feel that's at odds with the vintage crime pics the film wants to celebrate. This isn't the heavy-handed CG-noir of Sin City, but even so, it feels fake.

Joining Brolin and Gosling in the squad are Anthony Mackie, Robert Patrick, Michael Peña, and Giovanni Ribisi. Mireille Enos, the moody police detective of AMC's The Killing, puts on '40s dresses and a '40s 'do to play Brolin's wife - who's expecting a baby, and expecting Sgt. O'Mara to play it safe for the sake of the new family. Of course, he can't do that - there's a madman out there, and somebody's got to keep him in line.

Early trailers for Gangster Squad featured plenty of Penn's hardboiled histrionics, and also featured a tommy-gun shootout in a movie theater. After the events at the Aurora, Colo., multiplex last summer, the scene was cut from the trailer - and it's absent from the film, too. But Penn's over-the-top tirades and bullying threats are still there - it's a wild and woolly performance that isn't always as menacing as perhaps the actor intended it to be.

"Los Angeles is my [expletive deleted] destiny!" he barks at one point.

Where's that tomato?

Contact Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.philly.com/onmovies.


Gangster Squad

Directed by Ruben Fleischer. With Anthony Mackie, Josh Brolin, Emma Stone, Sean Penn, Robert Patrick, Ryan Gosling, Giovanni Ribisi, Nick Nolte, Michael Peña. Distributed by Warner Bros..

Running time: 1 hours, 53 minutes.

Parent's guide: R (for strong violence and language).