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Film review: GANGSTER SQUAD, from Built For Speed

Shifting awkwardly from solid crime-busting drama to cartoonish, ultra-violent action film, Gangster Squad doesn’t know if it wants to be The Untouchables or Dick Tracy.  Allegedly based on fact, the film depicts the nefarious empire of gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) a vicious New York hood and former boxer who, in the late 40’s, set up his own chapter of the mob in LA despite the objections of both police and the Chicago crime syndicate.  With just about every significant politician, judge and bent cop in his pocket, Cohen was soon able to conduct his violent reign of terror with impunity.  With bodies stacking up, Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) one of the few decent cops left, decides the only way to stop Cohen is to form a secret squad of incorruptible yet deadly police, led by former soldier John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), who can wage guerrilla warfare against Cohen.

Early on Parker suggests that the battle against Cohen is a war for the soul of LA which seems to be a fairly obvious attempt to align this film with movies such as Chinatown, LA Confidential and maybe even Day of the Locust (for my money the best of the three) which looked into the dark heart beneath the sunny gloss and Hollywood glamour of Los Angeles.  This film, however, fails to say anything as profound about the city as those three films and soon transforms into nothing more than a stylish shoot ‘em up.

While the action scenes flow at a pretty furious pace, they’re often confusing as they feature characters who look the same shooting at each other in the dark.   Also, how did Cohen build and all-powerful criminal empire with henchman who can’t shoot straight?   The violence is often extremely gory which seems excessive and inappropriate in the early scenes but starts to fit once the film establishes its slightly surreal tone.  Gangster Squad also boasts impressive production design with its detailed, stylised film-noirish depiction of 1940’s LA.

For a film boasting such a big name cast it’s disappointing that so few performances are memorable.  Brolin is stone-faced and grumpy throughout although he convinces as someone capable of extreme violence.  As Cohen, Penn veers from vicious and genuinely menacing to awkwardly hammy.  His tendency to twist his weather-beaten face into a strange scowl is unintentionally comical and when he puts on his little hat he looks like the title character from The Magic Pudding.  Ryan Gosling underwhelms with a mostly insipid performance as Brolin’s over-confident, womanising off-sider Sgt Jerry Wooters.  Even Emma Stone, who is normally excellent, fails to convince as Cohen’s girlfriend and Wooters’ secret love interest; she just seems too intelligent and wholesome to be the girlfriend of someone like Cohen.  Most memorable is Giovanni Ribisi, who is very reminiscent of Charles Martin Smith in The Untouchables and manages to turn his electronics expert character into an amusingly acerbic nerd.

This film seemed to promise a lavish gangster epic but instead delivers an odd mish-mash of filmic styles and unconvincing characters and as a whole falls far short of gangster classics like Goodfellas.

Nick’s rating: Three stars.

Classification: MA 15+

Director(s): Ruben Fleischer

Release date: 10th Jan 2013

Running time:  113 mins

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