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Gangster Squad movie poster

Gangster Squad: Movie Review

Genre: Action, Drama
Rated: R
Directed by: Ruben Fleischer

Starring: Sean Penn, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Josh Brolin
Released by: Warner Bros.

Run time: 113 minutes
Year: 2013

In Short: Josh Brolin and Sean Penn lead an ensemble cast in this predictable yet entertaining tale based on the exploits of notorious L.A. mobster Mickey Cohen.

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Nothing New in this Neo-Noir

Director Ruben Fleischer's 2009 film "Zombieland" was a hilarious, action-packed send-up of the classic zombie flick. His latest effort, "Gangster Squad," a flashy, bullet-riddled romp through the underworld of late-1940s Los Angeles, does much the same for the mobster genre — if, albeit, unintentionally. Loosely based — and the keyword is loosely — on the true-life turf war between L.A. cops and East Coast gangsters in the years following World War II, "Gangster Squad" tells the tale of Sgt. John O'Mara (Josh Brolin), a straight-shooting war hero with a heart of gold and fists of steel. Hand-selected by the chief of police (Nick Nolte), O'Mara's task is to take down mob boss Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), a former boxing champ who now trades in dope, bookkeeping operations and cheesy one-liners. The story is familiar and the characters are pretty much pulp fiction staples at this point, but, after getting off to a relatively slow start, Fleischer and crew seem to revel in the constant barrage of bullets that shower across the screen for the remainder of the film.

While the shadowy, CGI-enhanced cinematography and lavish set designs rely heavily on the iconography and glamour of old Hollywood, the storyline is as informed by Spaghetti Westerns as it is noir thrillers. As the ever-eloquent Mickey states, "this is the Wild f—in' West!" — a lawless land of seedy brothels, speakeasy-style casinos and gun-slinging henchmen with names like Bruiser — and Sgt. O'Mara has just the right type of reckless swagger to thrive in such an environment. However, every cowboy needs his posse, and O'Mara has found his in the "Gangster Squad" — a ragtag assemblage of misfit policemen working undercover for little gratitude and no recognition. Although they make for a fun crew to root for, they're all fairly stereotypical — there's the knife-wielding tough guy from across the tracks (Anthony Mackie), the nerdy wire-tap whiz (Giovanni Ribisi), the six-shooting old coot (Robert Patrick) and his Latino Tonto-in-training (Michael Peña). Perhaps the most interesting member of the squad is Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), a suave, morally ambiguous ladies' man who must make a choice between his own selfish wants and a deep-seeded desire to do good (spoiler alert: morality wins!). Thrown in the mix is Emma Stone doing her best Jessica Rabbit as a fresh-faced femme fatale with stunning red ringlets and an evening gown to match.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in Gangster Squad A still from Gangster Squad

As is invariably the case when restless anti-heroes are given carte blanche to wreak havoc across an entire town, high-speed car chases, kung-fu-inspired fist fights and lusty, forbidden romance follow the Gangster Squad wherever they go. To be honest, it doesn't look like a bad time. The action sequences are over-the-top, the violence is borderline cartoonish and the dialogue is at times downright groan-inducing, but hey, who can blame Fleischer for wanting his explosions bigger and his heroes even larger than life?

However, while unabashed action-for-action's sake may be the modus operandi of "Gangster Squad," the real scene-stealer of the film is Sean Penn as the grizzled, cold-hearted killer Mickey Cohen. Given full license by screenwriter Will Beall's often sensationalist script to ham it up to his heart's content, Penn's performance is punctuated by manic bouts of air boxing, inhuman guttural growls and straight-faced quips like "heeeeere comes Santy Clause!" Like the film as a whole, his acting plays heavily on gangster clichés almost to the point of parody. Also like the rest of the film, it seems to somehow benefit from this fact.

While "Gangster Squad" is hardly an accurate portrayal of mob life in the Post-War era, or even always an intriguing one, it nonetheless makes for a slick popcorn flick that harkens back to the early days of Hollywood cinema.

Reviewed by Nick Winfrey and Alain Gayot


(Updated: 02/26/13 KNF)

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