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posted: 1/10/2013 6:00 AM

'Gangster Squad' shoots for style over substance

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  • An elite and diversified group of secret L.A. police officers (from left, Michael Pena, Josh Brolin, Robert Patrick and Anthony Mackie) clean up the streets in the period crime thriller "Gangster Squad."

      An elite and diversified group of secret L.A. police officers (from left, Michael Pena, Josh Brolin, Robert Patrick and Anthony Mackie) clean up the streets in the period crime thriller "Gangster Squad."

  • Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) is the face behind the operation in "Gangster Squad."

      Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) is the face behind the operation in "Gangster Squad."

  • Grace Faraday (Emma Stone) isn't sure which side to be on in "Gangster Squad."

      Grace Faraday (Emma Stone) isn't sure which side to be on in "Gangster Squad."

  • Video: Gangster Squad trailer

 
 

I liked the Chicago version of Ruben Fleischer's "Gangster Squad" much better. It was titled "The Untouchables."

Will Bealls' screenplay to "Gangster Squad," based on the book by Paul Lieberman, appears to have appropriated the American western conventions in Brian De Palma's 1987 Chicago-shot thriller, right down to the good guys' lovable, nerdy mascot purchasing the farm to cement our emotional opposition to the villains.

It's all about a straight-shooting law man and dedicated family guy assembling a crack team of peace officers to wage a street war against a ruthlessly murderous, megalomaniac, big-city mob boss with most of the government in his back pocket.

"Gangster Squad" throws in an extra romantic subplot and a climatic bare-knuckles boxing match, but nonetheless prompts comparisons to "The Untouchables," right down to Sean Penn's recreation of mob boss Mickey Cohen as the raging Al Capone of L.A.

Fleischer's "Gangster Squad" sidesteps the Chicago mythology of "The Untouchables" and the gritty realism of "L.A. Confidential," preferring a sensationalistic, almost graphic novel approach, one exploding with flashy visuals peppered with blood-red lipstick, monochromatic nocturnal cityscapes, smartly tailored suits and blazing guns.

In a post-World War II Los Angeles, Cohen, a former boxer, rules the town with a bloody fist. The story begins with Cohen ordering an unfaithful lackey tied to the bumpers of two cars -- going opposite directions.

Virtuous police chief William Parker (Nick Nolte, now sounding like a bull frog) decides desperate measures are in order to save his city.

We're losing Los Angeles to an eastern crook!" he croaks.

He summons chiseled-jawed, equally righteous Sgt. John O'Mara (Josh Brolin, fresh from his stint as Tommy Lee Jones' younger self in "Men in Black 3") to head up a secret squad of cops who will ditch their badges so they can play as dirty as Cohen's henchmen.

O'Mara carefully chooses his improbably integrated missions task force: handsome Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), cowboy marksman Max Kennard (Robert Patrick), bug-and-wiring expert Conwell Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi), black beat patrolman Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie) and rookie Latino cop Navidad Ramirez (Chicago's own Michael Pena).

Each has a specialty that comes in handy to help the unit go up against the army of the sadistic Cohen.

Wooters' special talent apparently is being sexy so that Cohen's breath-of-fresh-air-for-the-eyes girlfriend Grace Faraday (Emma Stone) will fall for his charms, even at the risk of her own life.

"Gangster Squad" comes packed with lots of gun play and other assorted forms of violence, often captured in cliched, ill-advised slow motion footage that actually reduces the impact of the action.

In the film's original cut, gangsters open fire with machines guns in a movie theater. That was excised after last year's shootings at a Colorado theater showing "The Dark Knight Rises."

Even without the provocative theater shooting, "Gangster Squad" doesn't lack for engaging action set pieces.

But it does need a better villain than Penn's superficial mad-dog killer, frothing at the mouth every time he spits out a piece of comic book dialogue. Take the scene where a scared flunky tells Cohen he didn't betray him.

"I swear to God!" he says.

"You're talking to God!" Cohen hisses, "so you might as well swear to me!"

Of the good guys, only Brolin and Gosling play characters with any depth, and even then, they're not all that deep.

That makes some sense, considering Fleischer began as a director for music videos and TV commercials before busting into features with the blackly comic horror thriller "Zombieland."

Unfortunately, Fleischer can't rely on murdered mobsters rising from the dead to pick up the slack in "Gangster Squad."

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