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Gangster Squad
The Gangster Squad
Photo: Warner Bros.

Gangster Squad
Directed by Ruben Fleischer
Rated R

Gangster Squad covers familiar territory, but thanks to some good characters and a nifty theme, it earns a mild recommendation.

L.A. Confidential

Gangster Squad

The opening scenes of Gangster Squad feel a little generic, rather like the movie’s title. Is there anything new to say about this era? It’s post-World War II Los Angeles and a new war is opening up on the domestic front. Chicagoland gangsters are expanding their territory and one, Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn, The Tree of Life), claims Los Angeles as his personal destiny.

As the opening title cards say, this one’s “inspired” by a true story; it’s the kind of claim that leaves the door wide open for generous amounts of fabrication.

As can be expected in the typical gangster flick, the local judge and police are in on the action, effectively laying the foundation upon which Mickey can build his sprawling empire. Mickey has a nefarious plan to get really, really rich (the usual suspects – vices such as prostitution, drugs, and gambling – all contribute to Mickey’s well-being) and bring the City of Angels down on its knees in the process.

But the City of Angels still has a few good souls.

Homeland Security

Enter Chief Parker (Nick Nolte, Warrior). He’s got a plan to wage guerilla warfare for the soul of L.A., with the end game being the destruction of Mickey Cohen’s empire. The intent is not to kill Mickey, but instead drive him out of town so others of his ilk find it an unattractive idea to try to fill his shoes.

Once the situation is set and the pieces begin to fall into place, Gangster Squad manages to eke out its own identity.

At the heart of Chief Parker’s plan is Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin, Men In Black 3). He’s a tough-as-nails WWII vet with a penchant for justice and therein is an interesting angle. This is the Greatest Generation’s war on homeland gangsters. This is a throwback to good ol’ American grit and fortitude.

As Parker and O’Mara hammer out their plan, the movie’s pace and entertainment value pick up steam. O’Mara’s wife is pregnant, which would under normal circumstances become a serious point of contention in terms of the family’s well-being and O’Mara’s death-defying line of work.

But Connie (Mireille Enos, TV’s The Killing) knows full well her husband is all about honor and duty, it’s what defined his life during WWII. He’s the iconic Good Man and, well, she’ll also be the first to admit abstract thoughts and concepts aren’t in his wheelhouse. And so it that Connie assists John in selecting his elite team of do-gooders to go after the bad guys. She knows who she wants around her husband in order to keep him safe and she knows hiring choir boys, even in the City of Angels, isn’t the way to go.

The Untouchables of the West

A Dick Tracy vibe runs under the surface of Gangster Squad. Brolin brings his square jaw and an unwavering sense of duty to Sgt. O’Mara. And Sean Penn looks... well... he physically looks like a gangsta caricature peeled off the cutting room floor of Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy feature film from the 1990s.

Director Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland) crafts his own gangster world, one that’s more like Dick Tracy meets The Untouchables rather than playing it entirely straight like The Godfather or Goodfellas.

Gangster Squad has a good sense of humor about itself, which certainly seems to be in Flesicher’s comfort zone. A jail break scene in particular offers up a nice laugh-out-loud miscue that salutes old-school Hollywood. But there’s also plenty of violence – and the timing of all that violence, amid chatter of gun control and controversy over the potentially corrupting influences of violent movies and video games in the wake of an ultra-violent 2012 in the United States of America – makes for a somewhat uncomfortable movie-going experience. It’s a notion that warrants an article all of its one; stay tuned for that one, true believers.

As a quick taste of where Gangster Squad goes with the grisly stuff, at one point Mickey pulls a classic double entendre and advises a couple of his goons, “you know the drill.” Yeah. They pull out an electric drill and do away with one of Mickey’s problems, so to speak. Mostly off-screen, of course.

The Good Guys

Oftentimes in movies like this it seems like the bad guys are more interesting than the good guys, but that’s not the case here. O’Mara’s team is a menagerie of classic Good Americans. Most notable are Max Kennard and Conway Keeler. Kennard (Robert Patrick, Terminator 2: Judgment Day) is saddled with the nickname Hopalong by another squad member on account of his distinct Wild West demeanor. Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow) is a family man and electronics genius – and another WWII vet.

Gangster Squad
Grace (Emma Stone) and Sgt. Wooters (Ryan Gosling)
Photo: Warner Bros.

Add in Anthony Mackie (The Hurt Locker) as a guy with a thing against Burbank and Ryan Gosling (Drive) as a playboy and there’s plenty of variety in this Untouchables of the West.

To a man, the cast is terrific.

Ah, but there is one weak link. Emma Stone, who co-starred in Fleischer’s Zombieland, plays a siren with Hollywood stars in her eyes, but Stone doesn’t quite have the goods to play a sultry vixen; she doesn’t have the smoldering sex appeal such a role requires. She’s cute, that’s for sure. She’s even sexy. But she doesn’t smolder. As a point of comparison, Berenice Marlohe smolders in Skyfall.

One of the opening lines in Gangster Squad repeats the old adage that evil prospers when good men do nothing. That was certainly fitting for World War II and post-war America. And it’s no less fitting now. That notion is bookended at the end of the movie with O’Mara making an observation that all men carry a badge; the question is what that badge represents in terms of that man’s allegiance. Sure, Gangster Squad is a popcorn movie with loads of violence and a colorful presentation style under Dean Wolcott’s (John Carter) sure-handed art direction, but set aside the bullets and the gloss and there’s a solid reminder that, ultimately, the fate of the world hinges on the character of people.

• Originally published at MovieHabit.com.

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