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Movie Review: 'Gangster Squad'

By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – Gangster Squad was originally slated to open in September, but its release was delayed in the wake of the Aurora, Colo. shooting because a scene displaying a gangland massacre in a movie theatre too closely resembled the events of that tragedy.

Reshoots ensued and the scene was replaced by a confrontation that occurs in Chinatown.

They should have reshot and replaced a lot more than that.

(1½ stars out of 4)

Gangtser Squad is a high-octane true-crime drama -– a Pulp Nonfiction wannabe -- that chronicles the activities of the special unit created by the notoriously corrupt LAPD to lead its fight to keep East Coast Mafia types out of Los Angeles in the 1940s and 1950s.

The unabashedly violent melodrama is in the noirish ensemble mode of L.A. Confidential and The Untouchables, and wants to be thought of in the company of classic gangster flicks like The Godfather and Goodfellas.

But style rubs out substance from the get-go, and much too much of it is far too contrived and excessive to be included in that august group.

Sean Penn plays Brooklyn-born mob boss Mickey Cohen, an ex-boxer who intends to take over the town's guns, drugs, and wire bets, as well as the police, prostitutes, and politicians west of Chicago.

Ryan Gosling and Josh Brolin play Jerry Wooters and John O'Mara, respectively, the renegade police sergeants in charge of the fight, while Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, Robert Patrick, and Michael Pena also come aboard their covert train.

Nick Nolte portrays their police chief, William Parker, and Emma Stone plays Cohen's squeeze, who's also pursued romantically by (gulp) Sergeant Wooters.

Gosling and Brolin come the closest to fleshing out their roles, but most of the ensemble play characters who are one- or two-dimensional at best.  Even Penn, normally a brilliant actor, chews his share of scenery and, although he seems to be having quite a good time, does little more than play the same psychotic note over and over again.

Overall, there's a severe underemployment of the major talent on display, and the cast is underserved by a half-baked script that often treats the characters like props or artifacts instead of people.

The sole purpose for what was then called the Gangster Squad was to take down Cohen by any means necessary, legal or not.  And that's the story that the plot is designed to tell.

But when the speechifying begins about how ill-advised it is for law enforcers to stoop to the level of mobsters, it registers as sheer hypocrisy, given that the film bathes in the excessive violence.

In his third film, director Ruben Fleischer -- who wowed us with his very funny debut feature, Zombieland, before disappointing us with his followup comedy, 30 Minutes or Less -- strays out of the comedy realm for the first time.  His first stab at drama arrives in a period package that's densely detailed but that slobbers over its own bloodlust and ultraviolence.

It's obvious that Fleischer is hoping to capture the movie audience's occasional loving response to a gangster flick.  But he glorifies automatic weaponry to an astonishing degree, has an obnoxiously cavalier attitude about human life, and pushes the level of self-seriousness until he gets unintentional laughs-at instead of laughs-with.

The choppy screenplay by former LA homicide detective Will Beall, loosely based on a book by Paul Lieberman, depends far too much on over-the-top shootouts to the point that sometimes what gets us from one action scene to the next seems like nothing but indifferent filler.

So we'll arrest 1½ stars out of 4 for a shallow shoot-em-up in which subtlety and historical accuracy give way to an energetic ballet of bullets.  As our debate about excessive violence in media reconvenes, expect Gangster Squad to be prominently mentioned.

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