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Movie Review: Gangster Squad

January 12, 2013
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Gangster Squad! doesn’t actually include an exclamation point in its title, but it should. It really, really should. When you open your film with a guy being gorily drawn and quartered and then savaged by wolves, you’ve earned some punctuation. And since the rest of the film is as messy as that poor sap’s goify innards why not let that silly excess spill out onto the poster?

Yes, it is a mess, but a pretty fun one that gets more enjoyable with its bouts of seriousness than its more frequent inanities. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Josh Brolin is Sergeant John O’Mara, a good cop in post-WWII Los Angeles. Sean Penn is Mickey Cohen, the bloodthirsty Jewish gangster who controls the LA underworld. Ryan Gosling is Sergeant Jerry Wooters, who flings his Wooters at every dame in sight, and Nick Nolte is a dead ringer for Mark Wahlberg in 30 or so years. Less importantly, he’s the LAPD police chief who wants Cohen’s empire brought down and recruits O’Mara to do it. O’Mara is a war vet with experience fighting in occupied territory. He has to work undercover and basically has the authority to kill indiscriminately, which I imagine is pretty useful in situations like this.

But O’Mara can’t do it alone, so he in turn recruits his own team, and in one of the movie’s flights of fancy into logic, O’Mara is poring over the profiles of the LAPD’s best. His wife stops him and reasons that those are just the kinds of guys Cohen’s likely to have on his payroll; O’Mara should recruit the guys with a history of insubordination. It weirdly makes sense, and just as weirdly sensible is the result of their first raid, which I won’t spoil because, well, it’s one of those pretty fun moments.

Anyway, O’Mara drags in knife-slinging Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie), beady-eyed bugger Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi), sharpshooting legend (I wanted to write “gun-slinging,” but I just used it) Max Kennard (Robert Patrick), and his Mexican ward Navidad Ramirez (Michael Pena). Wooters makes a few appearances with the gang, but spends most of his Wooters on Cohen squeeze Grace Faraday (Emma Stone). You have the square-jawed hero, the old gunslinger, the brash minority, the nerdy guy (who is actually referred to as such), the playboy, and the rookie. That’s also about as far as their characters go, and then you dip right into the action.

There isn’t anything especially new, and you can trace the lineage of this film from Dick Tracy to Crazy, Stupid Love with some tangents at LA Confidential, Chinatown, and the still-underrated Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. Those are all better films, but there’s nothing wrong with setting your sights high.

The problem is that director Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland) knows the references, but he hasn’t learned much from them. The plot, names, look, talk, actors, and whatever-else-have-youse aren’t inspiration; they’re lifted material to fill in blanks. It’s too bad because Fleischer’s own touches are the best bits, I only wish the pulp had more pulse than it does.

But in the end it is fun. Of course it’s derivative and formulaic, but this is one of those times when that works slightly more in the film’s favor. And I haven’t played it, but I suspect Fleischer’s and screenwriter Will Beall’s biggest influence is the game LA Noire, as Gangster Squad feels, above all else, like a video game. The aesthetic and premise, along with the overt name-dropping is right in line with someone whose understanding of the period is derived from old films instead of actual experience. On the plus side, that influence keeps the pace moving with car chases, gunplay, knifings, and a barrage of LA backdrops from the outskirts to the sin-dens to Chinatown – and as a any gamer can tell you, there’s few feelings in life better than getting someone to blow themselves up with their own grenade.

Rating: 3/5

Gangster Squad is rated R. Directed by Ruben Fleischer. Written by Will Beall. Based on the book Tales from the Gangster Squad by Paul Lieberman. Starring Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Nick Nolte, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, Michael Pena, Robert Parick, Mireille Enos, Holt McCallany, and Jon Polito.

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