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February 4, 2013

In the 1930s and 1940s, a mobster by the name of Mickey Cohen tried to turn Los Angeles into the kind of criminal oligarchy that characterized Chicago during the period. As the corruption spread, and even infected their own, the LAPD stood against him and ultimately won, preventing L.A. from becoming a permanent seat of organized crime.

This really happened. It’s a significant part of Los Angeles history. The true story of the rise and fall of a would-be empire, brought down by the determined work of a principled few — in the right hands, that story could result in a truly compelling, even classic film.

In the wrong hands, apparently, it results in GANGSTER SQUAD.

GANGSTER SQUAD dearly wants to have the significance and gravity of CHINATOWN or THE GODFATHER, but winds up being an orange-and-teal DICK TRACY instead. The dialogue is written almost entirely in cliches and soundbites, the shooting and editing style (if we’re so charitable as to consider it a coherent “style”) more concerned with whatever might seem “cool” for this particular moment than creating a sense of time and place. All of it is dragged in from other movies without a sense of why those other movies did it, so you get a GOODFELLAS steadicam-entering-the-club scene in the same film as a slo-mo shootout — complete with close-ups of dramatically blossoming muzzle flashes — more appropriate in a film like DREDD.

Josh Brolin tries his level best to occupy the hardboiled noir world the movie ought to evoke but doesn’t, and Ryan Gosling actually has charm and wit, to the extent it almost feels like his scenes have been spliced in from another, better film. But Sean Penn’s Mickey Cohen is desperate for a mustache to twirl, Emma Stone is sweet but in no way evocative of the classic 1940s starlet, and the movie barely considered the other characters worth discussing so I see no compelling reason I should bother to do so here.

Somehow both predictable and nonsensical, the plot races from beat to beat without earning any of its attempted emotions or catharses, and culminates in a truly ridiculous, borderline insulting final showdown. For a movie about the “battle for the soul of Los Angeles,” the city itself isn’t a character the way it is in CHINATOWN (although, as mentioned, neither are the actual humans, so fair enough). What ought to be a sprawling historical crime epic is reduced to a generic white hat/black hat shoot ’em up where everyone drawls out of the side of their mouths, and which could frankly take place in any city about any group of characters.

As I said, in the right hands, this story could be fascinating. Fortunately for everyone, Frank Darabont is currently developing Lost Angels for television, a drama series based on the book L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City (no relation to the video game L.A. Noire) about this same period in the city’s history. If you’re curious about the story, read the book or wait for the show. Don’t bother with this misfire.

One Comment
  1. Good review. The dialogue and acting are over-the-top (Sean Penn in particular) in a very fun way. This is no lasting classic, but it is a good time.

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