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MOVIE REVIEW: 'Gangster Squad'

Go for Sean Penn's riveting performance, but don't expect it to be historically accurate – or deep.

Are you ready to be completely underwhelmed?

Gangster Squad is based on the sorta true events of a secret Los Angeles Police Department unit assigned by Chief William H. Parker (played by Nick Nolte) to take down Los Angeles-based racketeer Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), whose illicit dealings and infiltration of the justice system made him seemingly untouchable.

And that’s the last time I’ll use THAT word because The Untouchables is a far better gangster movie.

  • Gangster Squad is playing at the Edwards Aliso Viejo Stadium at 12:45, 1:45, 3:45, 4:35, 6:45, 7:30, 9:40 and 10:15 p.m.

That being said, I prefer film noir, a la L.A. Confidential, for my period gangster movies. But I’ll have to take Gangster Squad at face value, because that’s all it’s asking of me. And, at face value, it’s stylized and quick-paced, a step up from a music video but nothing like the genre demands.

Sean Penn’s performance, however, is worth the admission price, because he is always riveting. Say what you will about the guy’s politics, he is one of Hollywood’s best actors, and here he is sharp and convincingly terrifying, the kind of character you could see prompting a lie-and-deny police hit squad.

Ryan Gosling is also good, although his voice grated more than usual. We were all looking forward to watching him re-create the great chemistry he had with Emma Stone in Crazy, Stupid Love.

Alas, it never happened. Emma Stone is so miscast here. As adorable as she is, she doesn’t scream late ’40s bombshell. She’s best when she plays the quick-witted smarty pants, like in Easy A. Here, she’s just arm dressing, which any voluptuous starlet could have provided.

It’s a pretty well-known axiom even outside Hollywood that January movies aren’t the greatest. They’re designed to give us some respite from the heady Oscar contenders thrown at us just before December's end. Still, I had hopes that Gangster Squad would be the exception to the rule. It wasn’t.

Most of the other characters are throwaways, even leading man Josh Brolin, who plays Sgt. John O'Mara. Other than references to soldiers unable to stop being soldiers when they returned from World War II, the audience doesn’t know what motivates them. At 113 minutes, a character study this is not. You don’t hear this complaint often, but the movie was too short.

My daughter read the book, so I’d have someone on whom to bounce questions about historical accuracy afterward. Turns out, even I could see the movie couldn’t possibly be true to history. A multiracial police squad in 1949? Do we have to put 20-oh-oh values on our period pieces, ones that claim they're based on true events? Seems silly to me.

No. 2 also informed me the squad was much bigger than six members, and it took more than a decade to bring Mickey Cohen down. In the movie, he's charged with murder. In real life, he got pinched for tax evasion ... twice. And the timing's all wrong. The movie takes place over a few months at best, based on a pregnancy in the film.

Also, says my personal expert, Cohen in real life was nothing like Sean Penn’s version. He was roly-poly, an inept boxer in his day who was not nearly as personally intimidating, a lot more like a nemesis Sean Penn takes out than the one he plays.

But none of this would have made a compelling movie. 

Not that this was one.

Shawn Walsh January 15, 2013 at 04:12 PM
Penny should have said "spoiler alert" at the top since she gave away the fact that Sean Penn's character was charged with murder. Thank you for the trailer because the movie looks better than ever at this point. BTW - the correct spelling is "roly poly"
Penny Arévalo January 15, 2013 at 04:32 PM
Hi Shawn! I think it's safe to say any review longer than three paragraphs will contain spoilers! And the movie *might* contain a murder or two (dozen!). Thanks for catching the spelling. Probably the first time I ever professionally used that phrase. :-)

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