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"GANGSTER SQUAD"
(2013) (Sean Penn, Ryan Gosling) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Drama/Action: A small team of post WWII LAPD cops attempts to undermine the rule of a mobster who's essentially running Los Angeles.
PLOT:
It's 1949 Los Angeles and former boxer turned celebrity mobster Mickey Cohen (SEAN PENN) essentially runs the city of Los Angeles, not only through his own goons -- including Jack Whalen (SULLIVAN STAPLETON)-- but also the cops, judges and others under his control. Chief Parker (NICK NOLTE) of the LAPD is one of the few not in his pocket and he wants the mobster shut down.

Accordingly, he enlists the aid of LAPD cop Sgt. John O'Mara (JOSH BROLIN) -- a WWII vet who doesn't always play by the book -- to draft a small team of lawmen to work undercover to undermine Cohen's various rackets that include drugs, prostitution and, if he has his way, all of the betting action west of Chicago.

While John's pregnant wife, Connie (MIREILLE ENOS), isn't thrilled at all by the idea, she decides if he's going to do that, she's going to help him pick his team. Among them are veteran gunslinger cop Max Kennard (ROBERT PATRICK) and his new associate, Officer Navidad Ramirez (MICHAEL PEÑA); brainiac and family man Officer Conwell Keeler (GIOVANNI RIBISI); Officer Coleman Harris (ANTHONY MACKIE) who's keen on stopping the heroin trade in his neighborhood; and fellow WWII vet Sgt. Jerry Wooters (RYAN GOSLING).

Jerry initially isn't interested, and mainly uses his badge to get him into nightclubs and such. He'd also rather spend time with Grace Faraday (EMMA STONE), a former aspiring actress who just so happens to be Cohen's doll, something their mutual friend Jack thinks is nothing short of playing with fire.

But when a mob hit accidentally includes his favorite shoeshine boy, Jerry joins the team and they begin their campaign of upsetting Cohen's various ventures. The mobster initially thinks that's the work of rivals, but when he eventually figures out it's cops, their lives along with Grace's immediately face increased peril.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
For many people, if you mention Los Angeles and gangs, the first thing that might pop into one's mind are the Bloods and Crips, the city of angels' infamous rivals that have been battling over turf and such matters since the early 1970s. Of course, organized crime had been around long before them and their notorious criminal behavior. Starting with immigrant communities and then the infiltration by Cosa Nostra, a.k.a. the Mob, including the arrival of Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, L.A. has had its share of organized crime and gangs.

One lesser known such figure was Mickey Cohen, sent by his superiors to serve as Siegel's bodyguard in L.A. He soon became his chief lieutenant, and ended up setting up the Flamingo Hotel and its sports book operation. After Siegel moved to Vegas and especially following his murder, Cohen took over his operations.

His tale and that of a number of LAPD cops who tried to oust him make up the plot thrust of "Gangster Squad," a film best known until now for having its initial theatrical release postponed due to the real-life Aurora, Colorado movie theater shootings in July 2012 (since this film initially featured, but no longer posses a similar but not identical shooting scene).

Working from former Los Angeles Times writer/editor Paul Lieberman's book of the same name, screenwriter Will Beall and director Ruben Fleischer have fashioned a period gangster piece with all of the genre's usual trappings. That includes the main mobster (Sean Penn), the cop trying to shut him down (Josh Brolin), the "dame" caught in the middle (Emma Stone), and, of course, lots of Tommy guns, nice suits, and fashionable fedoras.

Accordingly, it feels like something of a combination of Warren Beatty's "Bugsy" and Curtis Hanson's "L.A. Confidential" in terms of attention-grabbing but violent mobsters involved in show business coupled with both good and corrupt cops. It will also likely remind many a viewer of Brian De Palma's far better cop vs. mobster drama, 1987's "The Untouchables."

After all, both feature larger than life criminals who rule their respective cities (including by having many cops and others on their payrolls) and enjoy a certain celebrity-like status. There are also the determined lawmen after them, the ragtag groups they assemble to raid and disrupt the business ventures, and even a shootout on a wide stairwell (a hotel one here as compared to De Palma's famous and brilliant restaging of the train station one from Sergei Eisenstein's "Battleship Potemkin").

Alas, director Ruben Fleischer ("Zombieland") is no De Palma, be that in terms of building suspense for such pivotal scenes, shooting those or others with real flair, or really getting us to care about the characters. Sure, there are plenty of shoot-outs (sometimes in hyper slow motion to sensationalize the mayhem), little bits of humor here and there, and Penn creating a believably one-dimensional mobster.

But the filmmakers can't seem to settle on a single tone to carry throughout. Sometimes it nudges its way into the land of farce, with its occasional noir type dialogue (and especially the unnecessary opening and closing narration), Nick Nolte's performance as the chief of police, and stereotypical gangster trappings, conventions and clichés.

The film also misses -- although it briefly touches upon it via a line of dialogue -- its chance to explore the fact that the cops are breaking the law (including killing a lot of people) just like the mobsters they're after. While such an examination wouldn't be anything new to the world of fiction, at least it would have added an interesting or at least compelling level of subtext to the otherwise superficial proceedings.

What it does get right is the look of post-WWII Los Angeles, both through the production and art design as well as the various costumes. It certainly doesn't hurt that Ryan Gosling (playing a cop reluctant to join the special task force) and Emma Stone fit into the latter nicely and effortlessly come off as characters (at least movie ones) from that era. Brolin plays a bull in a china shop type character with the issue of not being able to turn off the war programming inside him, while Mireille Enos plays the stereotypically concerned wife (although she's good in the role).

Other notable performers such as Giovanni Ribisi, Robert Patrick and Michael Pena also appear in many scenes, but aren't given much opportunity to play beyond their introductory characteristics (the brain, the gunslinger and the rookie respectively).

Thus, we don't really care that much about their fates or those of anyone else. Granted, the film has its small moments of decent material (including some unexpected humorous bits), but the fact that it often borders on being a parody while presumably trying to look hip and cool doesn't do it -- or the viewer for that matter -- any favors. "Gangster Squad" rates as a 5 out of 10.




Reviewed January 7, 2013 / Posted January 11, 2013


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