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'Gangster Squad' boasts gore and little else

By Joe O'Leary
On January 21, 2013

Though "Gangster Squad" is one of the first big-screen movies to reach theaters in 2013, it had pretty much been finished in July for a Sept. 14, 2012 debut. However, a climactic scene in which armed men stormed a movie theater, and shoot into the audience from behind the screen came to life on July 20 in Aurora, Colo., and the film was shunted to January after reshoots became necessary.
The remade film clearly improved from the excision of that scene, but the move couldn't have saved this lukewarm noir, whose gratuitous violence and shifting tones leaves a lot more to be desired than the sum of its parts-a cast featuring Ryan Gosling, Josh Brolin, Sean Penn and Emma Stone-would suggest.
The film concerns a group of valiant World War II veterans working for the LAPD in 1949 who become embroiled in a Los Angeles war, enlisted to join the titular squad who is determined to take down the boss, Sean Penn's Mickey Cohen. In the meantime, Gosling's young cop spies Cohen's girl, a dame played by Emma Stone, and works to save her from the ruthless man.
Cohen is a very bipolar villain, and Penn's performance is overacted, but only to a small degree. He chews some scenery with truly awful one-liners that try to lighten the mood and largely fail, but that's on the writers. While Cohen's introduced as a ruthless former boxing champ who applied his brutal fighting style to the criminal world, the film also entertains the notion that he might have taken one too many haymakers to the brain. The problem is is that these two identities are at odds with each other throughout the film; from the opening scene, where a man is torn apart by two cars, it's never clear whether Cohen is supposed to be a genius or a madman.
The film's treatment of Cohen is a direct cause of its inability to find a theme. The movie's simultaneously laser-focused on the Gangster Squad's battle against Cohen and his forces and almost amused by its old-school forays into the mob-busting business, a "Sin City"-esque rip reflective of its origin as a comic stuffed with nonstop death, violence and sex. As a result, it hangs between two extremes: a gritty, dramatic retelling of a true story and a self-aware parable about the extents good men will go to stop bad ones in an action flick. But it doesn't mind the gap gracefully. At one moment, Josh Brolin's character, Sgt. John O'Mara, is promising to his pregnant wife that he'll put his future family first, with touching orchestral music behind him. Ten minutes later, he's storming casinos and killing perps with vigor, throwing around shotguns like they're toys and terrorizing the public. The film is so at odds with itself that there are no cohesive themes holding sway, meaning that its numerous attempts at different styles means it never finds substance.
But where it suffers most is in its ridiculous approach to violence. Trucks explode, grenades go off and tommy guns tear people into little pieces, but the violence is so over-the-top and exploitative in its nature that it feels wrong compared to other movies. It kind of addresses the problems with the NRA's post-Newtown policy, another shooting. First, they're looking at violence in media, and this film's ridiculous gun violence is definitely a problem. But that's because they're reflecting Wayne LaPierre's second argument, that bad guys with guns can only be stopped by good guys with guns. In "Gangster Squad," those good guys aren't that good, and they go far over the line in many different ways, and the grisly violence that's ripping apart their enemies only leads to flesh wounds on the heroes. Simultaneously, the gunfights are sometimes just gun porn, frequently slowing down and basking in the glow of its "Aren't these guys with guns cool?" action scenes, especially one shootout where Penn and Brolin are pretty much idolized.
There are a few small bright spots in this dark mess. Ryan Gosling doesn't rise above the material, but his character works well enough. Emma Stone does rise above, and her beautiful doe eyes save her damsel in distress from being just that, but just barely. Otherwise, skip the "Squad" as a whole; all it holds is middling action and a lot of bloodshed.

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