Combustible Celluloid
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With: Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn, Emma Stone, Anthony Mackie, Michael Pena, Giovanni Ribisi, Robert Patrick, Nick Nolte, Mireille Enos
Written by: Will Beall, based on a book by Paul Lieberman
Directed by: Ruben Fleischer
MPAA Rating: R for strong violence and language
Running Time: 113
Date: 09/01/2013

Gangster Squad (2013)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Splat in the Hat

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

It seems as if the gangster movie has gravitated toward high-quality, blue-ribbon cinema, rather than regular popcorn munchers. Old-timers like Little Caesar (1930), The Public Enemy (1931), and Scarface (1932) have become classics, and even Brian De Palma's remake of Scarface (1983) is now loved and respected. This does not even take into account such applause-worthy gangster films as White Heat (1949), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Godfather (1972), Once Upon a Time in America (1984), GoodFellas (1990), Miller's Crossing (1990), etc. Indeed, it seems that very few gangster movies even attempt anything slightly less ambitious, and more at "B" level.

Which brings us to Gangster Squad. This is a movie that doesn't skimp on car chases, absurdly violent shootouts, and really snazzy fedoras. It feels as if it could have been a decent, second-gear gangster film, and Ruben Fleischer, the director of the wondrous Zombieland (2009), should have been the man for the job.

But there's just a certain lack of drive here. The plot, which more or less recycles another De Palma film, The Untouchables (1987), simply unleashes a series of dumb clichés, marking certain characters for death early on, allowing the bad guy to make one stupid slip-up, etc.

Gangster Squad is lazy and not particularly well thought-out, but fortunately a terrific cast manages to snap many of the movie's moments into life. Josh Brolin stars as John O'Mara, a Los Angeles cop, circa the late 1940s, who is braver than most. The chief (Nick Nolte) singles him out to form a special, secret squad designed to take down gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), whose foothold in L.A. will soon be too strong to stop. To make matters more complicated, his loving wife (a very good Mireille Enos) is pregnant and worries about losing him to the job.

Of course, it's up to O'Mara to assemble his team of outsider cops, which will no doubt be a group of misfits, each from a different walk of life. Anthony Mackie is the tough guy from the bad neighborhood, Robert Patrick is a cowboy-like sharpshooter, Michael Peña is his culturally maligned partner, Giovanni Ribisi is the brains of the outfit, and Ryan Gosling is Sgt. Jerry Wooters, the boozy, aloof, reluctant last-minute addition.

Jerry has another problem: he has seduced and fallen in love with Mickey's girl, Grace (Emma Stone), and it's only a matter of time before Mickey finds out.

Fleischer clearly adores his actors and has a smooth, cool directing style, but the problem here is mainly the script, and what it wants to say. Mickey Cohen was a smaller character in L.A. Confidential and Bugsy, but this movie doesn't seem to expand on him much, and only gives him more scenery to chew. The heroes talk a bit about having survived WWII and the importance of family, but not in any way that really clicks.

What does it all add up to? It's a gangster story that we've seen before, not prestigious, but also not care-free. Yet it has many fun moments. I guess it all comes down to the two words that Pauline Kael once used to open up a review: "It's OK."

Warner Home Video has released a snazzy new Blu-ray/DVD Combo pack with an optional "Ultraviolet" digital edition. As with most new releases, the quality is exceptional. Extras include a commentary track by director Ruben Fleischer, and an "in-movie" experience called "The Gangland Files." There's a ton of little featurettes, and about 12 minutes of deleted scenes. We also get a full-length episode of "Rogues Gallery" on Mickey Cohen.

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