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What a waste.

That thought lingers in the air like the smoke off some moll's cigarette at the end of the gory, only intermittently entertaining "Gangster Squad."

The film noir originally was slated for release this past September, but it was delayed after the Aurora, Colo., tragedy to accommodate for a reshoot to replace a sequence involving a shooting in a movie theater. Sadly, it wasn't worth the wait.

Its failings aren't due to the top-notch cast, which includes Ryan Gosling, Josh Brolin and Emma Stone. Those three are mostly OK, even if some of their roles are underdeveloped. It's the screenplay that brings down this action flick.

This film image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Ryan Gosling, as Sgt. Jerry Wooters in  Gangster Squad." (AP Photo/Warner Bros. Pictures,
This film image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Ryan Gosling, as Sgt. Jerry Wooters in Gangster Squad." (AP Photo/Warner Bros. Pictures, Wilson Webb) ( Wilson Webb )

And what a shame that is. Director Ruben Fleischer ("Zombieland") has vividly brought to life the late 1940s-'50s Los Angeles. He, production designer Maher Ahmad and costume designer Mary Zophres welcome us into a richly detailed era that tailor-fits this crime story about a clandestine group of lawmen trying to take down crime boss Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn).

Fleischer stages and paces action set pieces like a champion, from a climactic shootout at a hotel Christmas display (love those exploding bulbs!) to a suspense-filled Chinatown encounter. But at times, he goes overboard on the violence, making it glaringly gratuitous. Really, do we need to see a guy get ripped apart by two cars?

"Squad's" screenplay by Will Beall alternates between violent and silly, until it goes so over-the-top we stop caring.

Beall, who's a novelist and former homicide detective, based his crime avenger story on journalist Paul Lieberman's nonfiction book. One of his biggest problems is Grace (Emma Stone), a love interest that Beall created for the Gosling and Penn characters who is not given much to do. The romance between Gosling and Stone is so boring and phony, it makes you almost forget how well the two played off each other in "Crazy, Stupid, Love." Here, they have no chemistry whatsoever, and the screenplay does nothing to help them turn up the heat. On his own, Gosling has some fine moments as his character leaps into mob-fighting action.

Beall's two main characters -- the single-minded Sgt. John O'Mara (Brolin) and the narcissistic Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Gosling) -- have a lot of potential, but most of it goes untapped.

Brolin is a commanding on-screen presence as a World War II veteran waging his own war, but he's not given much to play with, especially when it comes to the dialogue, which is limp. Neither was anyone else, for that matter. The film's best moments -- written well by Beall -- don't involve the needlessly graphic violence. Rather, they come in the exchanges between O'Mara and his smart, pregnant wife, Connie (Mireille Enos), who helps select the squad in question. Connie is the most intriguing character in the whole lot. You just wish her character had more screen time than the boys.

Other members of this squad have their modest moments, with Robert Patrick and Anthony Mackie standing out. But it's Penn as Cohen, their nemesis, who surrenders to too many histrionics and comes off as far more comical than the scary presence he's supposed to be. Penn doesn't modulate his Cohen, and while he's obviously having fun here, I wish we could say the same.

"Gangster Squad" needed to rein it in in so many ways. As they'd say back in the day: Sweetheart, give me rewrite.

'GanGSTER SQuad'

* *

Rating: R (for strong violence and language)
Cast: Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Sean Penn, Anthony Mackie, Nick Nolte
Director: Ruben Fleischer
Running time:
1 hour, 53 minutes