News Column

'Gangster Squad' Movie Wastes Talent of Stars

Jan. 12, 2013

Michael Smith

Jan. 12-- "Gangster Squad" is one violent, cliched movie.

As far as artistry, this mob-movie junker dabbles in 1940s fashions and goofy performances, but its main inspiration is the sound of handguns, rifles and machine guns pumping hot lead into bad guys, providing them a permanent vacation in a pine box.

'GANGSTER SQUAD' Cast: Ryan Gosling, Josh Brolin, Sean Penn, Emma Stone

Theaters: Cinemark Tulsa, Promenade, Cinemark Broken Arrow, RiverWalk, Owasso, Starworld 20, Eton Square, Sand Springs, Moviestar Cinema

Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes

Rated: R (strong violence and language)

Quality: 2 (on a scale of zero to four stars)

That's the way in which far too many characters in "Gangster Squad" talk. It's as if there was no dialogue written for the movie, but instead the actors were told to play-act as if they were starring in a black-and-white gangster flick from the postwar era.

And in this gratuitous, R-rated version, they can fire off dirty words, too.

Playing a lot like a naughty version of a "Dick Tracy" comic strip come to life, it feels like most scenes involve an exchange of gunfire, possibly because dialogue scenes are so empty that director Ruben Fleischer ("Zombieland") called out, "Will somebody please shoot something?"

They usually do in this tale based on the true events of Los Angeles cops in 1949 fighting to keep East Coast gangster Mickey Cohen from taking over Los Angeles in much the same way that Al Capone ruled Chicago.

Sean Penn plays Cohen as a sadistic crime kingpin, clearly psychotic as the movie opens with him ordering a foe chained between two cars' bumpers in the hills behind the "Hollywoodland" sign, then ripped in half as the cars vroom away in opposite directions, with the remains chewed on by stalking coyotes.

The movie is always style-over-substance in this manner, with nothing of value to say beyond the square-jawed, straight-arrow cop played by Josh Brolin lamenting that he didn't fight in World War II to return home to Los Angeles and find it occupied by the enemy, too.

But as Brolin assembles his off-the-books squad of cops to fight Cohen -- Ryan Gosling as the lover boy with a heart, Giovanni Ribisi as the wiretapper, Anthony Mackie as the knife-wielding enforcer, Robert Patrick as the dead-eye gunman and Michael Pena as Patrick's sidekick -- it never feels like we're watching any real sense of historical events.

And the racial makeup of this squad doesn't ring true for the era either. It looks more like a beer commercial in that sense -- but with gunfire and brass knuckles.

My own anticipation for this title came from the cast assembled -- including Emma Stone as Cohen's dame, looking fabulous in red dresses during this film that screams "golden age of Hollywood" -- but rarely is an ensemble this talented wasted to this degree.

"Gangster Squad" is so impressive in its fashion sense that it reminds of "The Untouchables," and unfortunately so does Penn's over-the-top performance as Cohen, acting as if mimicking how Robert De Niro pulled off his unforgettable characterization of Capone.

There's a reason that Los Angeles period crime movies such as "Chinatown" and "L.A. Confidential" continue to play in heavy rotation on TV and films like "Gangster Squad" are quickly forgotten.

The gold standard has been set. A movie of this caliber that reminds of those classics looks like a silly excuse for actors to play cops-and-robbers in classy suits, talk like smart alecks and smoke a lot of cigarettes.

But what's troubling is how often the film appears to showcase violence for the sake of violence, in an attempt to cover up the lack of a quality story.


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