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Thursday, May 23, 2013

Review: Gangster Squad

Aims, Shoots, Misses

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: January 11, 2013 – U.S.
Rating: R
Genre: Action, Drama
Running Time: 113 minutes
Director: Ruben Fleischer                
Writers: Will Beall (screenplay), 
Paul Lieberman (book)     
Cast: Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, 
Emma Stone, Nick Nolte, 
Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, 
Michael Peña, Robert Patrick, 
Mireille Enos

"Gangster Squad" is a major mixed bag. It features some of the best actors working in Hollywood today, absolutely beautiful backdrops that transfer the viewer right back in time to vintage Los Angeles circa 1949, and it's based on the fascinating real-life story of mobster Mickey Cohen. What could possibly go wrong? As it turns out, a few things...

The premise: Notorious criminal Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) has taken over L.A. with a dangerous mixture of money and force. He has police officers, judges, and city officials in his pocketbook; anyone who can't be bought off is violently disposed of. Police Chief Bill Parker (Nick Nolte) wants to take back his town. He enlists former World War II sergeant John O'Mara (Josh Brolin) and orders him to put together a secret army to bring Cohen down.

O'Mara's wife, Connie (Mireille Enos), is pregnant and worried, but she ultimately surprises him by scouting out potential candidates.

Soon, the "Gangster Squad" takes shape: its initial recruits are Coleman Harris, an African-American detective who is tired of wasting time on lowly drug pushers (Anthony Mackie); Conway Keeler, a family man who also happens to be an expert at surveillance and bugging (Giovanni Ribisi); and Max Kennard, a famed marksman nicknamed "Hopalong" for his incredible shooting skills (Robert Patrick). They're soon joined by Kennard's partner, Navidad Ramirez (Michael Peña), and finally another sergeant, Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling). Wooters complicates things by falling in love with Cohen's "tomato," Grace Faraday (Emma Stone).

Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, Michael Peña, and Robert Patrick have enough charisma between them to set off fireworks. Yet, they dial it down to almost nothing; their performances for this movie are strangely subdued.

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, who sizzled as on-screen couple in "Crazy, Stupid, Love," once again play lovers but completely fail to recapture the same magic. They have the chemistry of brother and sister in this film.

Sean Penn, one of the most talented and versatile performers of his generation, comes across as a cartoonish caricature – more reminiscent of a "Dick Tracy" villain than the serious criminal Mickey Cohen was.

I have to believe these were all conscious stylistic choices by each actor – particularly Penn. Cohen is presented as a man-child who wears a bib at five-star restaurants, doesn't know which fork to hold during meals, and throws tantrums like a toddler when things don't go his way. All of these little details would make for an interesting character study of Cohen's psychological makeup if Penn's performance wasn't so one-dimensional and downright hammy otherwise.

The pacing isn't much better. "Gangster Squad" limps along, sliding the pieces into place but never really going much of anywhere for a while. The big turning point comes near the end with a scene set in Chinatown. It's beautifully shot and packed with action and drama. The grand finale, in a hotel, is even more spectacular – with guns blazing. Even if it does take far too long to get there, "Gangster Squad" doesn't falter at the finish line. The payoff is absolutely worth it, and that is almost but not quite enough to redeem the rest of the movie.

And yet it has its moments, even in the early-going – as few and far between as they may be. The squad recruitment scenes and spy setup stuff, for example, are somewhat fun to watch. Overall, "Gangster Squad's" reliable mediocrity might serve as comfort food in repeat viewings. You know the type of movie I mean. Still, it could have been great. The fact that it's anything less is a colossal disappointment. 

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