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Scenery-chewing 'Gangster Squad' a disappointing cartoon

‘Gangster Squad'

• Rated R for strong violence and language

• 2 stars

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By Bill Goodykoontz
Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013, 8:58 p.m.

Looking at the credits for “Gangster Squad,” it was surprising to find that it wasn't based on a comic book.

It would have been fitting, because Ruben Fleischer's film, about the consolidation of power by the gangster Mickey Cohen in LA in the late 1940s and 1950s, plays like a live-action cartoon. But no, there it is, just a regular script by Will Beall, based on Paul Lieberman's non-fiction book.

The characters are cliches, particularly Cohen himself, played in absurdly broad fashion by Sean Penn. Sean Penn! The guy is a great actor. Here he seems to be doing a parody of a noir gangster, ready to mow down all youse guys if you cross him.

It's head-scratching stuff, really.

Cohen has bought off a sizable chunk of the city and police force, allowing him to expand his criminal empire. He's got his sights set on controlling all the wire bookmaking in the western U.S., and with his clout and crooked influence, it seems as if there is nothing stopping him.

Cue the dramatic music. Here comes the gangster squad.

It doesn't happen that way, but it wouldn't have been any worse if it had. What actually happens is a new police chief, William Parker, (Nick Nolte), has had enough. He enlists Sgt. John O'Mara (Josh Brolin), a hero in World War II and a straight-arrow cop, to stem the tide of Cohen's influence. This is one of those off-the-books assignments. Report to no one. Just get the job done.

O'Mara, with the help of his wife (Mireille Enos), recruits a group of like-minded cops: Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), a playboy type; Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie), a black officer with contacts in the African-American community; Max Kennard (Robert Patrick), a shoot-'em-up cowboy type who seems to have wandered in from an episode of “Bonanza;” Kennard's sidekick Navidad Ramirez (Michael Pena); and technology nerd Conwell Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi).

The film is somewhat similar in structure and temperament to “The Untouchables,” Brian De Palma's far superior 1987 film about Eliot Ness going after Al Capone. The head-on approach can only work for so long, so other methods must be found. As with De Palma's film, despite being the good guys, O'Mara and his men must resort to unsavory, extra-legal means to level the playing field.

There is a really good story in here somewhere. Cohen is a fascinating figure, operating in an interesting time. Here he's a cardboard cutout, prone to hilarious bouts of rage (and bouts, period; he was a boxer). Think of any gangster cliche you've seen or heard, and Penn delivers. He is nothing if not thorough.

Brolin plays things a lot straighter. He and Gosling are actually pretty good, and Emma Stone manages to escape the most-obvious gun-moll clichés as the object of Cohen's affections and, later, those of Wooters. That triangle should pose more of an element of danger than it does. But like the rest of the story, it's simply not thought-out enough to really register.

“Gangster Squad” looks right. The cast seems ideal. Bits and pieces here and there entertain. But it never really comes together in a satisfying way, and given the talent involved, that adds up to a big disappointment.

Bill Goodykoontz is a film critic for The Arizona Republic.

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