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FILM REVIEW: Gangster Squad

Categories: Movies

From the director of Zombieland comes a dose of L.A. noir. Imagine The Untouchables meets L.A. Confidential and you have an idea of the pulpy pleasures of Gangster Squad. What the shoot 'em cop-and-mobsters film lacks in sophistication, it makes up with style and swagger. Josh Brolin is Sgt. John O'Mara, a decorated veteran who is waging a one-man war on organized crime. The setting is Los Angeles in 1949, where the whole town appears to be under thumb of Mickey Cohen, the top mobster who see himself as a titan of industry with a tommy gun. Penn plays Cohen as pure id, the Citizen Kane of organized crime. Unfortunately he's smothered under more makeup than the entire cast of Dick Tracy.

 Holt McCallany, left, as Karl Lockwood, and Sean Penn, as Mickey Cohen, in Gangster Squad. (Warner Bros. Pictures/Associated Press)

To stop Clayface Cohen, Chief Parker, played by the rumbly Nick Nolte, creates a band of cops without badges. Their mission: smash Cohen's operation and hit him where it hurts. Led by O'Mara, Gangster Squad fills out the team with typical hard-boiled archetypes. There's the smooth talking Sgt. Jerry Wooters played by Ryan Gosling speaking in voice that sounds like a mix of Truman Copote channeling Humphrey Bogart. Then there's the technician, Officer Conway Keeler, (Giovanni Ribisi) the family man who learned wiring in the army. Plus there's the cowboy quick-draw artist named Max Kennard and the two minority roles — Coleman Harris, a black cop who prefers switchblades, and a Latino cop named Navidad Ramirez (Michael Pena, recently seen in End of Watch.) Neither Ramirez or Harris are given the luxury of a backstory, but they handle their pistols just fine.

This being a Philip Marlowesque period piece, we can't forget the dames. Emma Stone appears as Mickey Cohen's etiquette tutor, which inspires one of Gangster Squad's better exchanges.

SGT. WOOTERS: (one of Cohen's men) Who that?

JACK: Mickey's etiquette tutor. Teaching him some sophistication.

SGT. WOOTERS: Must be nice.

JACK: What's that?

SGT. WOOTERS: To have some sophistication. I haven't had some in months and it's not from lack of trying.

That's the kind a of snap-crackle-pop dialogue that pulls Gangster Squad just above your typical shoot 'em up. The movie comes from screenwriter Will Beall who is (God help me) also fast at work on screenplays for the DC super team on Justice League and Lethal Weapon 5. (sigh)

 Josh Brolin, left, as Sgt. John O'Mara, and Nick Nolte, as Chief Parker, in a scene showcasing 1940s era suburbia. (Warner Bros. Pictures/Associated Press)

Still there are moments where if you squint, you can see the potential the movie might have had. Officer Keeler standing outside his home in a sparkling new suburb watching a test rocket rise into the night sky. Here on the cusp of the '50s, there's a whiff of potential in the desert air. But for the most part G. Squad's strengths are on the surface. Its meticulous recreation of late 1940s California, complete with snazzy three-piece suits, vintage nightclubs and the warm burnished brown and bronze tones of a old suitcase.

The actors playing dress-up are for the most part content to play to their strengths. Imagine a massive fist going smashy smashy and you get the gist of Josh Brolin's unsubtle role. Sean Penn revels in playing an unrepentant baddie, while Stone and Gosling continue the smoldering two-step some enjoyed in Crazy, Stupid Love.

None of that makes up for the movie's unimaginative gunplay and predictable plot, but if you're looking for a reprieve from the award season selections Gangster Squad is the well-groomed dinner date (with minor rage issues) you've have been waiting for.


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