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

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.

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.

OK, it's a movie. Who cares about when Parker became Chief? Or whether Cohen went to prison for murder or (as in real life) was nabbed for the rather less colorful crime of income tax evasion? Or that, unlike the film, history tells us the Gangster Squad may have made life tougher for Cohen, but had little to do with the mobster's downfall? At least it's more entertaining than the earlier movie about the same squad, 1996's “Mulholland Falls” (in Which Nolte played the equivalent of the Brolin character and Penn's late lamented brother Chris played one of his men).

Brolin is wooden throughout — appropriately so, in the tradition of Robert Stack's Eliot Ness — and acts as a counterbalance to Penn's roaring, over-the-top rendition of Cohen. Penn says he consciously avoided emulating De Niro's Al Capone in “The Untouchables,” but their stylistic resemblance — together with the two films' plot similarities — make it tough not to think of De Niro. But Penn cranks the intensity way up, approaching the level of scenery-chewing usually associated with Gary Oldman.

Mackie gets all the best lines, with Patrick coming in second; both seem to be enjoying themselves. Gosling and the always welcome Emma Stone reprise the great chemistry they displayed in “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” And Dion Beebe's fine cinematography conforms to the burnished look that has become standard in color L.A. noirs set in that era.


ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).

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