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Gangster Squad Movie Review

Gangster Squad (2013) movie poster Gangster Squad

Theatrical Release: January 11, 2013 / Running Time: 113 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: Ruben Fleischer / Writers: Will Beall (screenplay), Paul Lieberman (book)

Cast: Josh Brolin (Sgt. John O'Mara), Ryan Gosling (Sgt. Jerry Wooters), Sean Penn (Mickey Cohen), Nick Nolte (Chief Parker), Emma Stone (Grace Faraday), Anthony Mackie (Officer Coleman Harris), Giovanni Ribisi (Officer Conwell Keeler), Michael Peρa (Officer Navidad Ramirez), Robert Patrick (Officer Max Kennard), Mireille Enos (Connie O'Mara), Sullivan Stapleton (Jack Whalen), Jon Polito (Dragna), James Hιbert (Mitch Racine), Jack McGee (Lt. Quincannon), Maxwell Perry Cotton (Charlie)

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Gangster Squad was originally scheduled to open in theaters on September 7, 2012. Then came the massacre at an Aurora, Colorado theater's midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises, a showing that was preceded by Gangster Squad's trailer. The trailer, which featured a blink and miss shot of a theater shooting, was immediately pulled and then Gangster Squad was delayed to allow time for re-editing and reshoots.

The delay was just four months, but it makes a world of difference in what it says about the film.
A September movie ushers in the fall movie season of serious dramas bound to be considered in year-end lists and Oscar races. That seemed fitting for a true crime drama set in mid-20th century Los Angeles and boasting a good deal of star power.

A January movie, on the other hand, is essentially moribund. Studios release movies in January as counterprogramming to the expanding awards bait and widely-seen big commercial Christmas Week openings. A January movie has no chance of competing for awards or cracking Top 10 lists. In recent years, the calendrical wasteland has typically been reserved for horror movies not screened for critics and expected to have toxic word of mouth. Very few movies have opened in January without a qualifying run the previous year and had any real artistic value.

That time alone would not be enough to clear Warner Bros.' conscience and that the studio would be okay with a January debut drains most of the promise that lied in this film's A-list cast, historical subject matter, and Zombieland director Ruben Fleischer.

Giovanni Ribisi, Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Anthony Mackie, Michael Peρa, and Robert Patrick comprise the Gangster Squad intended to take down Los Angeles' biggest mobster at the end of the 1940s.

In 1949, one criminal rules Los Angeles: the Jewish mobster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn). Cohen has his hand in every racket and is ruthless when it comes in punishing those who let him down. He has everyone from the highest judges to senior police officials on his payroll and looking the other way, plus virtually all crime running through the West Coast goes through him.

One good police sergeant named John O'Mara (Josh Brolin) seeks to loosen Cohen's hold on his city. O'Mara experiences resistance when he takes drastic steps to bust some of Cohen's associates. But the LAPD's Chief Bill Parker (Nick Nolte) shares the distaste for Cohen and gives O'Mara his blessing to follow his heart and bring Cohen down.

O'Mara assembles a secret undercover unit whose name gives the film its title. His very pregnant wife (Mireille Enos) helps him pick the handful of trustworthy law enforcers on whom he can count. They include an African-American (Anthony Mackie) who takes bold actions to crack down on drug dealers, a sharpshooter (Robert Patrick) whose exploits have already become immortalized in comic books, his Hispanic tagalong (Michael Peρa), and an intelligent family man (Giovanni Ribisi). Rounding out the squad is the suave, young Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), who has the audacity to secretly date Grace Faraday (Emma Stone), Cohen's new moll.

Sgt. O'Mara (Josh Brolin) has the full encouragement of Chief Parker (Nick Nolte). Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) takes the fearless step of courting Cohen's moll Grace Faraday (Emma Stone)

The gangster squad isn't afraid to play dirty, robbing from Cohen and threatening his income streams with actions designed to look like those of a rival gang.

Cohen isn't reluctant to respond, though he is clearly facing his first real challenge in a long time.

Gangster Squad does a good job with nailing the period detail, even if such art direction begs for the use of film and not the less than state-of-the-art digital video. Despite the historical basis, the story does not sizzle any more than say the underwhelming Public Enemies did. Some aspects of the film compel (like the conflict between O'Mara's duties to his city and to his wife), while others (chiefly, Wooters and Grace's stealth romance) do not. The Gangster Squad itself has the feel of an Ocean's Eleven, with their scenes having a certain comic camaraderie.

The acting is a lot spottier than you would expect. Penn chomps on scenery, a performance that's reminiscent of a Dick Tracy villain and somehow also calls to mind his I Am Sam turn. Though he has his admirers, Penn proves here he's one of the weaker actors to have two Oscars to his name. Adopting a kind of wimpy voice with a hint of period authenticity, Gosling feels like he's acts down to suit the movie rather than to elevate to the high quality of his usual output. Brolin and the rest of the cast hit the notes they are expected to, but despite some nice efforts, you are never able to shake the feeling that you're watching a January movie, one whose timing and re-editing reflect the concerns of a studio not confident in its product.

Notorious gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) dares police sergeant John O'Mara (Josh Brolin) to arrest him in the climax of "Gangster Squad."

Between 30 Minutes or Less and this, Fleischer shows he's only as good as his material. Few movies have material as strong as his debut, Zombieland. While Fleischer executed that to near perfection, he needs something better than what the first finished screenplay of ABC's "Castle" scribe Will Beall gives him to truly flourish. Gangster Squad has a lot of action and violence to justify its $75 million price tag. But the abundance of tommy gunfire and goon casualties cannot compensate for thinly-written characters and routine procedural devices (wiretaps, raids).

Amidst films like Texas Chainsaw 3D, A Haunted House, and The Last Stand, it's tempting to invoke the always humorous gag of declaring an early release the best movie of the year so far. But I'd be surprised if Gangster Squad hangs onto that shallow honor far into February.

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Related Reviews:
Directed by Ruben Fleischer: Zombieland • 30 Minutes or Less | Written by Will Beall: Castle: The Complete First Season
Now In Theaters: Django Unchained • Zero Dark Thirty • The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey • Hitchcock • Life of Pi
Josh Brolin: True Grit (2010) • No Country for Old Men • Men in Black 3 • The Goonies • In the Valley of Elah
Ryan Gosling: Crazy, Stupid, Love. • Drive • The Ides of March • Blue Valentine
Sean Penn: The Game • The Tree of Life • The Thin Red Line
Emma Stone: The Help • Easy A • The Amazing Spider-Man • Superbad • Ghosts of Girlfriends Past
Anthony Mackie: Real Steel | Robert Patrick: Bridge to Terabithia • Ladder 49 | Giovanni Ribisi: The Middle Men • Avatar
Nick Nolte: Tropic Thunder | Mireille Enos: The Killing: The Complete First Season
Dick Tracy • Billy Bathgate • Lawless • Gone Baby Gone • The Rocketeer

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Reviewed January 11, 2013.

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