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Film review: 'Gangster Squad' is no 'Chinatown'

January 12, 2013|By Andy Klein
  • From left to right, Michael Pea as Officer Navidad Ramirez, Ryan Gosling as Sgt. Jerry Wooters, Robert Patrick as Officer Max Kennard, Anthony Mackie as Officer Coleman Harris, and Josh Brolin as Sgt. John O'Mara in "Gangster Squad."
From left to right, Michael Pea as Officer Navidad Ramirez,… (Courtesy of Warner…)

It's hard to resist Los Angeles-based films noir -- "Chinatown," "Kiss Me Deadly," "The Big Sleep" being only a few of the best -- but "Gangster Squad" is a bit more resistible than most. Director Ruben Fleischer and screenwriter Will Beall have morphed Paul Lieberman's nonfiction book of the same name into something a good deal more fictional.

It's 1949. Gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) is trying to enlarge his California turf all the way to the Midwest, and a gang war against rival Jack Dragna, who is tightly aligned with the east coast mob, is already underway. Police Chief William Parker (Nick Nolte) — who actually wouldn't become chief until the following year — assigns incorruptible sergeant John O'Mara (Josh Brolin) to put together a secret Gangster Squad, designed to fight fire with fire. That is, charged with eradicating Cohen before he can spread, they are supposed to use all means possible — illegal surveillance, beatings, murder, whatever — without anybody knowing they're cops.

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In other words: this is “L.A. Confidential” meets “The Untouchables.”

Like a platoon in a Korean War movie, the team O'Mara assembles is an assortment of “types” — an African-American (Anthony Mackie); a Chicano (Michael Peña); an old sharpshooter (Robert Patrick), who seems to think he's still at the O.K. Corral; a wimpy, brainy guy (Giovanni Ribisi); and a cynic (Ryan Gosling), whose avoidance of commitment crumbles in the face of Cohen's pure evil. Outside of O'Mara, only Ribisi's character has a wife and kids — which by Hollywood convention is tantamount to painting a big red bull's-eye on his back surrounded by blinking neon lights proclaiming “Shoot here.”

“Gangster Squad” was supposed to come out last fall but was postponed after the Aurora, Colo., multiplex massacre because one major scene was a bloodbath in a movie theater. The filmmakers had to call back most of the principals to shoot a replacement scene set in Chinatown. (Neither version has much basis in fact.) Indeed the substitution may be responsible for some of the occasional plot holes.

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