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Movie Review: "Gangster Squad"

By Van Thomas Roberts

Most movies give you a chance to get comfortable with their narratives before they hit you with the hard stuff. “Zombieland” director Rueben Fleischer’s profane, bullet-riddled, urban crime thriller “Gangster Squad” (*** OUT OF ****) cherishes no such illusions. Early into the action, the arch villain of Angel City—real-life hoodlum legend Mickey Cohen—threads chains around the rear bumpers of two automobiles with an angry out-of-town mobster entangled in a hammock of chains between the cars. Native Americans saved this ghastly fate for only the most repugnant whites in old movie westerns, except with horses rather than cars. After a brief conversation, Cohen orders the cars to cruise off in different directions. An aerial long shot depicts the poor dastard as his body bursts apart in the middle. Indeed, “Gangster Squad” isn’t for everybody. This suspenseful, often violent, but thoroughly melodramatic law and order epic recounts how an undercover unit of Los Angeles cops fought fire with fire. They destroyed Cohen’s dreams of turning California into his own private kingdom. Movies like “Gangster Squad” use to be the bread and butter for Warner Brothers. The landmark Burbank studio produced the earliest and most controversial gangster thrillers in the 1930s with the three most memorable stars: James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, and Humphrey Bogart.

Los Angeles Police Chief Bill Parker (a beefy Nick Nolte of “48 HRS”) summons World War II veteran, Sergeant John O’Mara (Josh Brolin of “Jonah Hex”), because he needs somebody fearless enough to tackle a special assignment. Lately, Jewish crime figure Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn of “Bad Boys”) has been creating chaos in the City of Angels. Not only does he own a respected judge, but he has also been cheating on his mobster cronies both in Chicago as well as Los Angeles. The Chicago mob isn’t happy with Mickey’s behavior. The King of the Sunset Strip refuses to bow and scrape to the Windy City hoodlums. He has nothing but contempt for local crime boss Jack Dragna (Jon Polito of “The Big Lebowski”) and orders hits on his life. At one point, a shoeshine kid dies in an attempt on Dragna’s life. Cohen has established himself as a warlord, and he refuses to share and share alike with the mob. Incidentally, for the sake of armchair movie historians, “Gangster Squad” takes place after the demise of Benjamin Siegel, a.k.a. “Bugsy” (1991) with Warren Beatty as the notorious gangster who forged Las Vegas into the gambling capital of America. At one time, Mickey Cohen worked for Siegel as a henchman. Two bullets to the head scrapped Siegel’s criminal career in 1947. “Gangster Squad” opens in 1949 during the rising tensions of the Cold War between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.

Essentially, Chief Parker asks O’Mara to assemble a unit to harass Cohen. “Don’t make arrests,” Parker grumbles. “This is occupied territory. Wage guerrilla warfare.” O’Mara forms a rainbow-colored “A-Team” consisting of African-American Officer Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie of “Real Steel”), older white cop, Officer Max Kennard (Robert Patrick of “Terminator 2: Judgment Day”), his Hispanic partner, Officer Navidad Ramirez (Michael Peña of “End of Watch”), Officer Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi of “Ted”), and eventually Sergeant Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling of “Drive”). One of the first things they do is plant a bug in Cohen’s house so they can monitor him. Methodically, these guys shoot up Cohen’s bars, casinos, and disrupt his narcotics traffic. Wooters takes an interest in Cohen’s girlfriend, Grace Faraday (Emma Stone of “Easy A”), who is supposed to be teaching Mickey etiquette. “Gangster Squad” was “inspired” by true events and this means that Hollywood has taken dramatic license with history. Actually, the movie is loosely based on Paul Lieberman’s book. As far as I know, our rugged hero didn’t go toe-to-toe with Cohen in a public place and beat him to a bloody pulp. Of course, movies have to be both heroic and confrontational, and “Gangster Squad” possesses both of these attributes.

This obstreperous, 110-minute, R-rated, shoot’em up doesn’t flinch when it comes to episodes of violence. Despite the recent bloodbaths both in movie theaters and elementary schools, this standard-issue, old school Warner Brothers release embraces wholesale violence with relish. Fleischer features fashionable thugs armed with machine guns strafing anybody in sight, including poor white shoeshine boys. Fleischer stages the action with considerable finesse, and he relies on a charismatic cast to deliver a synthesis of “The Untouchables” with Kevin Costner and “L.A. Confidential” with Russell Crowe. Despite a plethora of action, largely frontal assault firefights on gritty city streets with .45 caliber Thompson submachine guns, “Gangster Squad” suffers from halfheartedly etched characters, a contrived screenplay by former LAPD homicide investigator and novelist Will Beall, and a numbing sense of predictability. You can guess what is going to happen before it does, but everybody looks good doing it. Nevertheless, genre fans should appreciate the studious lengths that the filmmakers have taken to recreate Los Angeles in the late 1940s. Some of the action was lensed on genuine L.A. locations and enhances the authenticity of the action. Flinty-eyed Josh Brolin makes a sturdy hero, while Ryan Gosling channels Humphrey Bogart. Sadly, Emma Stone lingers on the periphery as the love interest who eventually figures in the demise of Sean Penn’s Mickey Cohen. Penn chews the scenery as Cohen. No doubt he watched both “Scarface” and “The Untouchables.” Altogether, “Gangster Squad” qualifies as a good actioneer, with good performances, and good cinematography.

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