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Review: Gangster Squad

Gangster Squad
01.10.2013
5 10

PLOT: In post WW2-L.A, a tough but honest cop, John O'Mara (Josh Brolin) is tasked by LAPD chief Parker (Nick Nolte) to assemble a unit devoted to wiping out gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn).

REVIEW: GANGSTER SQUAD starts with the oft-used phrase "inspired by true events". In this case, the true events are that Mickey Cohen was a real gangster, and that the LAPD did indeed try to shut him down, but everything else is pure fiction. Cohen- while a powerful thug in his day, was probably not the maniacal super-villain portrayed here by Sean Penn, who opens the film by ripping a crony in half a la HITCHER, and then feeding the remains to the wolves. No matter- THE UNTOUCHABLES was largely BS, and that was still a terrific movie. In the end, it doesn't really matter that GANGSTER SQUAD is about as accurate a depiction of 1940's L.A as WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT...

Indeed, GANGSTER SQUAD seems to be trying really hard to be the next UNTOUCHABLES, but ZOMBIELAND director Ruben Fleischer, working from a script by Will Beall, struggles to give the film any style of it's own- with the finished product just coming off like a clone of other, better movies. There's a ton of THE UNTOUCHABLES mixed in here, along with an attempt to give this the intrigue of L.A CONFIDENTIAL, but the script isn't smart enough to even come close. Too bad, because considering the A plus cast, the healthy budget, and the unapologetic R-rating, this could have been a classic.

Rather, GANGSTER SQUAD ends up being your typical, overblown Hollywood action film. It's loud, and full of carnage, but very little of it is memorable. Everything is so ramped up in an attempt to make it "extreme" or "hardcore" that you become numb to it after about forty minutes. I'll give Fleischer some credit, one or two of the action scenes are impressive. A shootout in Chinatown, which seems like an obvious nod to the train-station shootout in THE UNTOUCHABLES, is effective (rumour has it, this was the sequence they reshot, after having scrapped the original movie theater shootout post-Aurora). But most of the action is so overwrought that it becomes campy, especially a car-chase that seems to rely heavily on CGI pyrotechnics, and the finale- involving a balcony mounted Gatling gun, and thousands of rounds of ammo (yet no cops- other than our heroes, show up).

But again, suspension of disbelief is fine, as long as the story is juicy enough to back it up. But by reducing the Mickey Cohen saga to a super generic cops and robbers story, it becomes tacky, and boring. Penn seems to be having fun as the satanic Cohen- with this being the kind of part that calls for him to say things like "they know the drill" before having his lackeys use a power drill on someone's skull. Sure- there's some creative sadism on display (again, this doesn't shy away from the R rating)- but he's a cartoon (and under layers of makeup, looks like he walked off the set of DICK TRACY), albeit a fun one.

The good guys don't fare quite as well- despite the fact that the talent on display is top notch. Blame it on cardboard, two-dimensional characters. Josh Brolin plays the square-jawed hero like Dick Tracy crossed with Dirty Harry, but rather than being badass, he comes off bland. Ryan Gosling, as the squad's ladies man, tries hard to make his character a little different, adopting a soft-spoken way of talking that sounds nicely noir. But still, he doesn't get much to do other than look handsome, and occasionally shoot someone. Emma Stone plays the typical doe-eyed gangster's moll, with a heart of gold- and while her chemistry with Gosling is still good (as it was in CRAZY STUPID LOVE), and she looks terrific, it can't overcome the fact that the script gives her absolutely nothing to work with.

The rest of the squad- Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, Michael Pena, and Robert Patrick, as a six-gun toting, old-timey cowboy cop, all seem game and do their best, but again they're let down by the absolute predictability of the plot. It gets to the point that you can pretty much count the clichés (walking away from an explosion- check, burning piles of cash- check, never running out of bullets but then running out just when you need them-check, and on, and on)- with the doomed characters having their imminent demises so obvious they may as well have "victim" stamped on their foreheads.

Everything about GANGSTER SQUAD just feels by-the-numbers and recycled, from the Hans Zimmer-ish core by Steve Jablonsky, to Fleischer's frequent ZOMBIELAND-style slow-motion cut ins. The only time his approach really feels fresh is during a brief jailhouse scrap whether the lights go out, and the action is conveyed by flashes of bright still images- which is kinda cool.

It's too bad GANGSTER SQUAD falls short, as it had the potential to be absolutely amazing, and could have been with this exact same cast. I guess we'll have to wait until Frank Darabont's L.A NOIR to get a really cool take on the same period. Until then, I suggest re-watching L.A CONFIDENTIAL- although, if you just want to see some carnage, you might like this.

Extra Tidbit: I should note that the audience I saw this with applauded at the end, so what do I know? Then again, they may have just been happy to see a movie for free.
Source: JoBlo.com

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