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The Mexico Ledger - Mexico, MO
  • Movie review: Weak script can’t kill ‘Gangster Squad’

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  • A smart screenwriter might have used the stylish but empty-headed shoot-em-up Gangster Squad to draw a relevant correlation between the CIAs hunt for Osama bin Laden and the city of Los Angeles Constitution-be-damned vendetta against famed mobster Mickey Cohen. But then Im betting no one ever suspected scripter Will Beall of being Mensa material.
    Instead of following in the steps of Zero Dark Thirty and creating a fascinating moral quandary over whether the ends justify the means in bringing down a mass murderer, Beall uses his inspired-by-true-events chronicling of L.A.s controversial Gangster Squad a group of six cops given carte blanche to use any means necessary to rid their city of undesirables to merely crack wise and create numerous scenarios aimed at tapping out Hollywoods voluminous fake-blood supply. Nowhere will you find a splattering of gray matter. Thats because brains arent permitted anywhere near the opulent post-World War II sets.
    Brawn, however, is abundant, along with slumming actors anxious to play dress-up and collect a large paycheck. Its a virtual whos who of talent, led by an over-emoting Sean Penn as Cohen, a Brooklyn-born Jew who rose to become the West Coasts most notorious mobster following the gangland slaying of his close pal and partner, Bugsy Siegel. Together, they helped found the gambling mecca of Las Vegas, but in L.A. they were the kingpins of drug-running, prostitution and, of course, murder. In the late 1940s, no cop, politician or judge dared to bring Cohen down, largely because most of them were on the payroll. An exception was straitlaced L.A. Police Chief William Parker (Nick Nolte), a devout Catholic inflicted with a touch of paranoia toward his perceived Jewish critics.
    According to the film, which is loosely based on a book by former Los Angeles Times reporter Paul Lieberman, it was Parkers idea (actually, it was C.B. Horralls, Parkers predecessor) to set up a clandestine squad of clean cops to go rogue and bring down Cohen and his lieutenants through any legal or illegal means.
    Heading the hand-picked Mission: Impossible-like team is Sgt. John OMara (Josh Brolin), a war hero determined to make the city safe for his soon-to-be-born child. As his second, he selects the flashy, womanizing Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling, often sounding like hes inhaling helium); and to finish out the crew, he appoints a rainbow coalition of specialists, from wire-tap expert Conwell Keeler (an overly bookish Giovanni Ribisi), aging marksman Max Kennard (a grizzled Robert Patrick), switchblade-wielding Coleman Harris (Goslings Half Nelson co-star Anthony Mackie) and the young-and-green newbie, Navidad Ramirez (a wasted Michael Pena). Completing this embarrassment of acting riches is smoky Emma Stone (looking like a real-life Jessica Rabbit) as Cohens luscious moll, Grace Faraday, the films lone fictional character and convenient love interest for her Crazy, Stupid, Love love interest, Gosling. Any comparisons to Veronica Lake and Lauren Bacall are welcome, particularly when shes dropping sultry lines like, I think Ill go bend my elbow while you boys bend your ears.
    Page 2 of 2 - To the credit of director Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland), he wastes little time setting up the premise and introducing the players. And for a while, he keeps things moving at a brisk pace, taking full advantage of his ensembles universal wit and charm. But as the movie drags on and turns into more of a 1940s fashion show in which the actors become clothes horses instead of living, breathing characters, Gangster Squad quickly runs out of steam. Its jarring attempts to lace the drama with Tarantino-type humor and sardonic violence (a mob fink chained to two cars and pulled apart like a wishbone) only add to the growing frustration.
    The most glaring flaw, though, is the utter lack of rhyme and reason in how the squad goes about its business. It neednt be anything as intricate or complex as TVs The Wire, but the only inkling of strategy we get comes via recurring scenes of the gang foolishly storming into harms way with machine guns afire. Its as nonsensical as Penns over-the-top portrayal of Cohen, who, by all reports, was nothing like the big-mouthed Tasmanian devil he couches him to be. And never mind that Penn, 52, is almost two decades older than Cohen was in 1949, the year in which most of Gangster Squad is set. But then thats just one of the dozens of factual errors that pop up en route to Cohens predictable comeuppance.
    Still, the film is never anything less than watchable, largely because of its seductively stylish look and bevy of charismatic actors. But in the wake of so many deadly shootings of late, including the tragedies in Newtown and Aurora, the almost unmitigated celebration of violence seems in awfully poor taste. And this despite Fleischer cutting a scene in which gunfire breaks out inside a movie theater, a set piece that was axed and reshot following the events in Aurora, delaying the films release by four months. Yet, all the blazing weapons and dancing bullet casings would be tolerable if only the paper-thin story didnt make it all seem so gratuitous. For Gangster Squad thats the most heinous crime, and it leaves you mournful of what might have been if Hollywood, for once, valued brains more than bullets.
    GANGSTER SQUAD (R for strong violence and language.) Cast includes Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. Directed by Ruben Fleischer. Grade: B-

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