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Gangster Squad

Any movie buff is sure to feel a happy frisson seeing the Warner Brothers logo at the beginning of Gangster Squad. Warners was the studio that made its name in the 1930s with crime stories starring James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart, and Paul Muni that were as hard-hitting as the output of rival MGM was glossy and ephemeral. Many of those films were loosely based on the careers of real gangsters of the day. Gangster Squad may use real names, but it’s pretty much as fictitious as those thrillers of 80 years ago.

The source was a book by LA Times reporter Paul Lieberman chronicling the efforts of a crew of cops in the late 1940s and 50s to keep East Coast gangsters from getting a foothold in Los Angeles. It’s fascinating stuff, especially if you’re a fan of James Elroy’s brand of LA noir.

Not much beyond the title remains for this movie, which essentially reprises Brian DePalma’s The Untouchables for a Boardwalk Empire audience. Instead of Al Capone, the bad guy is Mickey Cohen, played ferociously by Sean Penn in a performance that you wish were in a better movie: The real Cohen was a lot more interesting than this one-note hoodlum. Josh Brolin has the Kevin Costner part (by way of Boardwalk’s Michael Shannon) of Sergeant John O’Mara, the straight arrow enlisted to assemble a band to work on the outer edges of the law.

You can play this game all day if you want: Nerdly Charles Martin Smith is played by Giovanni Ribisi, ethnic outsider Andy Garcia by Michael Pena, etc. There’s even a moment of rage by Cohen, vowing vengeance on O’Mara, that is so similar to Capone’s rant in the DePalma movie (“I want him dead! I want his family dead!”) that it has to be intentional.

Gangster Squad gets high marks for its production design, recreating post-war LA as a riot of art deco glitz. It’s a great movie to look at, but blandly directed and photographed. After throwing out practically all the facts of this story, scripter Will Beall replaces them with hoary clichés and dishwater dialogue. (Here’s Ryan Gosling hitting on gangster mall Emma Stone: “I like to play post office.” “That’s a kid’s game, isn’t it?” “Not the way I play it.”)

Gangster Squad has enough gunplay and violence (some of it pretty gruesome) to make its costs back in the theaters from undemanding youngsters. In the meantime, I’m holding out hope for a proposed TV series based on the same story in development by Frank Darabont (The Walking Dead).

Watch the trailer for Gangster Squad

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