(Warner Bros. Pictures)
That’s what you get for badmouthing I Am Sam.
(Warner Bros. Pictures)

Review by The Isolated Moviegoer:

Ruben Fleischer’s Gangster Squad is the kind of period crime flick one might expect from a director who cut his teeth making commercials and music videos.  Visually slick with just enough danger to keep it from being pure fluff, the tale of the LAPD’s covert mission to keep Chicago crime boss Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) out of California is pulpy comic book fun.  Competent in all regards without setting its sights beyond smart thrills, it’s a fine excuse for an all-star cast to look cool, act cool, and say cool things, making for a bright spot in the typically bleak January schedule.

(Warner Bros. Pictures)
“Forget it, Jerry. It’s Chinatown.”
(Warner Bros. Pictures)

Though adapted from Paul Lieberman’s non-fiction text, the film’s factual basis is obscured by its commitment to entertainment.  Sure, sergeants John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) and Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) may grapple with postwar existential conundrums and overtly risk their lives for a safer future, but these are mere philosophical musings wedged between one engaging shoot-’em-up sequence after another.  Sprinting out of the gates, Fleischer stages these firearm confrontations with fanboy giddiness, and while no approach is particularly innovative, they’re consistently interesting to watch and edited with enough skill to keep the energy high.

The original Flipmode Squad.(Warner Bros. Pictures)
The original Flipmode Squad.
(Warner Bros. Pictures)

The bulk of Gangster Squad’s appeal, however, comes from seeing its impressive collection of faces enact these hard-boiled scenarios.  Relishing his villainous turn, Penn plays Cohen so large that it takes a well-rounded vigilante police force to balance him out.  Flanking Brolin and Gosling are suave knife thrower Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie), throwback cowboy Max Kennard (Robert Patrick), and tech expert Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi).  The lone weak link is Michael Pena’s chirpy Navidad Ramirez, a tagalong whose innocent annoyance is lessened somewhat by Kennard acknowledging that he bugs the hell out of him, too.

Through light but well-crafted group and individual chapters, each officer’s talents and personalities are quickly cemented, and when the team goes into battle, the connection to its components makes for engaging action.  Whether popping off loads of ammunition or sweet-talking ladies, everyone’s a touch more charismatic and confident than they have a right to be and spout dialogue that’s borderline too hip for its own good, but when the style works far more than it doesn’t, such analysis amounts to little more than nit-picking.

(Warner Bros. Pictures)
“Want to do the Dirty Dancing lift again?”
(Warner Bros. Pictures)

Honoring the era-appropriate attention to detail of classic cop sagas that came before, Gangster Squad also unexpectedly (and, most likely, unintentionally) blends in dynamics from a pair of recent films.  At the heart of its narrative is an odd mesh of Milk and Crazy, Stupid, Love, in which Brolin again wars with Penn while Gosling romances Emma Stone, here playing Cohen’s sultry squeeze.  Given a new set of stakes within its crime-riddled late-‘40s L.A. setting, these reunions only add to the film’s popcorn pleasures, ones so unpretentiously fun that it’d be a shame to pass them by.

Grade: B

Rated R for strong violence and language.

Gangster Squad is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.

For more film reviews, visit The Isolated Moviegoer.

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