Gangster Squad (2013), directed by Ruben Fleischer

An old fashioned Hollywood gangster picture staring hotter-than-hell actors Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone up against campy mobster Sean Penn? What could possibly go wrong?

Well, unfortunately enough to make Gangster Squad the first movie non-event of the year. Lots of hype, a great trailer, amazing cast, lots of promise and then…nothing. A script that never gets off the ground, a misused cast and film that just falls flat.

“Why am I not enjoying this?” I kept asking myself while I sat in the cinema. On one level I was. The film moves fast, keeps the violence level high, pleasures your retinas with beautiful people. But as a whole it is utterly void of any emotion, point, heart or interest. It’s as lifeless as the hundred bodies left behind in its story’s violent wake.

For one thing, and I’m just going to say it, this film is exactly like The Untouchables, only without the class or the moral intrigues. That film, about a group of cops brought together to bring down Al Capone by targeting his operations, had a sense for what makes a great gangster picture: sin and redemption. Good versus evil. Cops and robbers.

There is no redemption in Gangster Squad, simply because there is no need for it. There is only sin, and we are asked to root for it unquestionably. When there is doubt it is over whether the characters can carry out their dirty deeds, not over whether they should carry them out, or what they will lose in the process.

And I can understand that, but it doesn’t make for great drama. It makes for explosions and slow motion Tommy gun sequences. It makes for red lipstick and sleek cars in CGI’d chases. It makes for good guys that are indistinguishable from the bad guys.

It was that conflict of right versus wrong that makes The Untouchables a great movie. The same spirit makes you root for the bad guy in films like White Heat and Public Enemy, which Gangster Squad is trying to emulate. Lose that, and who do you have to root for? Even in those films the bad guys are going up against a system that’s keeping them down, and you get that. I got no sense of how what Penn’s character was doing is all that bad, nor of the moral superiority of our supposed heroes.

The film explores this conflict, but minimally. I liked how it linked the experiences of World War 2 to how these cops can leave their badges at home. I wish they had explored that more. The characters occasionally muse on whether the moral decay is worth the rewards, if the ends justify the means.

But it’s perfunctory. We, the audience, are never asked that question. We are asked merely to observe the conversation and then get back to enjoying the explosions, gun fights and blood. We are asked to cheer as Brolin beats Penn’s gangster into a bloody pulp.

All of which is fine. I like a throw away piece of entertainment as much as the next exploitation-loving filmgoer. But it doesn’t even do that all that well.

I mean, it’s serviceable, I didn’t hate watching it, but I never really got into it enough to ever care about what was going on on screen.

Ryan Gosling is smooth and cool in his role but resorted back to his smirky, fake-bashful “look at me, I’m in a movie. Unbelievable, right?” routine, a side of Gosling that puts me off. Josh Brolin plays his role. That’s all there is to say there.

Penn tries for the over-the-top villain thing, but he doesn’t have the flair to pull it off. He’s not bad, don’t get me wrong, but I kept thinking DeNiro in Untouchables and the two don’t compare. Nothing Penn did in that whole movie is as menacing as DeNiro talking about baseball in Untouchables.

Gangster Squad is a shell of gangster movie that doesn’t realize what makes the classic gangster films so great. Sure, it’s the style and the cars and the girls and the guns. But more than that it’s the characters, and having someone you can cheer for, whether they’re cops or gangsters, or a little bit of both.

Without that you simply don’t care.

Gangster Squad is in cinemas now.