GANGSTER SQUAD
Author: JoAnne Hyde
December 11, 2013

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SYNOPSIS: Los Angeles, 1949. Ruthless, Brooklyn-born mob king Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) runs the show in this town, reaping the ill-gotten gains from the drugs, the guns, the prostitutes and-if he has his way-every wire bet placed west of Chicago. And he does it all with the protection of not only his own paid goons, but also the police and the politicians who are under his control. It's enough to intimidate even the bravest, street-hardened cop...except, perhaps, for the small, secret crew of LAPD outsiders led by Sgt. John O'Mara (Josh Brolin) and Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), who come together to try to tear Cohen's world apart.

Gangster Squad is a sledge hammer of a film. With its A-list cast, it should have been a much better one. It gets the look of the period, 1949 L.A., right, but the script feels clichťd and offers ultra-violence instead of suspense and character development. It definitely has an audience Ė say 20-something males who like a lot of gun play and donít care much about one-dimensional characters. This isnít the first film about a few good cops trying to save L.A.ís soul from gangsters and corruption in the police department. In fact, throughout the film, my mind kept wandering to a much better romp through that time period: L. A. Confidential. That one had an A-list cast, too, but it also had a solid script and real suspense. It also had break-out performances from Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce as the good cops, and try as they might, Josh Brolin and Ryan Gosling canít overcome Gangster Squadís mediocre narrative.

The story involves the attempt of Police Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) trying to circumvent the widespread corruption if the department by recruiting a few good cops to go after mobster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) and prevent him from getting a foothold in L.A. Pennís performance is so over-the-top that he comes off more as a caricature than anything resembling a real person. Also disappointing is Emma Stone as Pennís girlfriend Grace. Stone rarely has a misstep, but she seems quite uncomfortable in this role. She looks gorgeous in the period gowns and ruby-red lipstick, but thatís not enough to compensate for a strained performance. The same can be said for Ryan Gosling as Sgt. Jerry Wooter, who looks scrumptious in the late 40ís-era suits, but is probably the least convincing tough-guy around. Come on, directors, heís a lover, not a fighter! (Yes, I saw Drive, and no, he didnít convince me in that one, either!)

The review continues after the jump!

Josh Brolin is trapped in the most one-dimensional role as Sgt. John OíMara, the incorruptible officer Chief Parker picks to assemble the off-the-books attack squad. He certainly looks and acts tough enough, but thereís no heart in the portrayal. Through voice-overs, OíMara is supposed to provide his motivation Ė his love for his home town Ė but it comes off as flat and unconvincing. One bright spot in the film is Mireille Enos as Johnís wife Connie. Sheís smart and savvy and gives what is rare in this film Ė a nuanced portrayal. Besides Brolinís and Goslingís characters, the squad is rounded out by Officer Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie), Officer Max Kennard (Robert Patrick), Officer Navidad Ramirez (Michael Pena), and Officer Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi). These actors fare a little better than Brolin and Gosling even if their characters are well-worn stereotypes. Mackieís Coleman Harris is the sole African-American cop on the beat trying to save his neighborhood from the evils of heroin. His weapon of choice? A well-thrown knife. Patrickís Kennard is the requisite throw-back to an earlier era. Heís the old-timer who packs a six-shooter, worn cowboy style. He knows heís a dinosaur, but his adoring protťgť, Penaís Ramirez, doesnít care. He just wants to be like this old dude. Ribisiís character Conway Keeler is the 1949 equivalent of a techie. Itís a kick to watch him set up primitive bugging equipment to spy on Cohen. As far as the body count amongst these crusaders goes, Iíll leave that to you to find out!

Gangster Squad was originally scheduled to be released in early September, 2012, but after the Aurora theater shootings, it was wisely pulled. Apparently, the film contained a scene involving a shoot-out in a movie theater which was edited out of the current version. Given the exaggerated violence in Gangster Squad and the current mood of the country after the Newtown, Connecticut tragedy, that was a smart move. A smarter move would have been to edit out some of the more gruesome scenes as well. If you go to the film, be aware that itís mainly eye-candy Ė definitely style over substance. - JAH

GRADE: C

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