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Gangster Squad

A violent and cartoonish take on the '40s gangster scene in LA.
By Tom Glasson
January 16, 2013
By Tom Glasson
January 16, 2013

One of the surprise hits of 2009 was Ruben Fleischer's offbeat black comedy Zombieland, a violent yet somehow delightful (and even romantic) parody of zombie horror movies that perhaps even bettered Shaun of the Dead. Zombieland brought together a diverse cast, a sparkling script, and gorgeous cinematography to create something quite unlike anything else seen that year.

Four years later, those same ingredients seemed in place for Fleischer's next film Gangster Squad, particularly in the casting, where a covetable blend of old (Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, and Josh Brolin) and new (Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, Anthony Mackie, Robert Patrick, Michael Pena, and Giovanni Ribisi) created a credits reel almost as long as The Hobbit.

And yet, to paraphrase Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park, the principle of tiny variations can vastly affect an outcome. Goldblum's character called it 'chaos theory', and while Gangster Squad might not quite be chaotic, its imperfections are far more noticeable than those on Laura Dern's wrist. Moreover, and not unlike the mindless flesh-eating hordes in Zombieland, this film tends to feed off a collection of other, better, films in a desperate attempt to survive.

It tells the 'based-on-a-true-story' story of '40s LA gangster Mickey Cohen (Penn), a boxer-turned-kingpin whose ambitions saw him aspiring to control all gambling operations across the entire US west coast. Cohen's power and influence rendered him altogether UNTOUCHABLE, with police and politicians either too corrupt or too afraid to stand against him. One good cop, however — war hero Sgt John O'Mara (Brolin) — refuses to lie down and watch his city fall into darkness. Deciding that Cohen represents a CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER, he LA CONFIDENTIALLY forms a secret team of vigilante law enforcers and together those MAGNIFICENT SEVEN take on Cohen at his own game.

In short, Gangster Squad apes several other great stories to tell its story of how the only honest cop in LA turns into a vicious vigilante murderer and is then lauded for it. With shootings, bashings, and blowings-up on both sides of the war, the moral compass swings around so fiercely in this film it's surprising it doesn’t wholly take off. Visually, it's a delight to behold, with elaborate set pieces, sumptuous period costumes, and grand architecture giving it a glamorous sheen; however, it can't gloss over the hammy script and one-dimensional characters whose journey only goes from A to A.

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