Gangster Squad (Warner Bros. Pictures, R)

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film gangster_smSean Penn is basically the male equivalent to Meryl Streep in the Academy’s eyes, and costar Ryan Gosling is perhaps the best young actor to pop up in the past decade.

 

 

film gangster_lg

 

Aren’t you kind of wondering why Gangster Squad is being released in early January, just after the cutoff for Oscar eligibility, when, on its surface, it appears to be such a solid film? January and February are typically awards consideration no man’s land, as even if the film is good, no one will remember it 10 or 11 months down the road when the awards season begins. But Gangster Squad stars Sean Penn, who is basically the male equivalent to Meryl Streep in the Academy’s eyes, and it co-stars Ryan Gosling, maybe the best young actor to pop up in the past decade! So why is Gangster Squad getting so unceremoniously dumped?

The obvious answer would be that the film is bad. But, the film is not bad. What the film is is generic beyond belief—it’s so full of hackneyed gangster movie tropes that it at times feels like a parody, but it isn’t one. It’s an honest, straightforward gangster movie, but it has absolutely nothing new to add to the genre, and is predictable and done-before enough that it might even make you mad, regardless how good the cast is.

The plot, which is based on a true story, focuses on a team of rogue policemen who band together to take down extremely powerful and scary crime boss Mickey Cohen (Penn) in late-’40s era Los Angeles. The leader of the so-called “gangster squad” is Josh Brolin’s Sgt. John O’Mara, who at the beginning of the film we see singlehandedly take down one of Cohen’s strongholds, directly against his (either scared or on the take) boss’s orders. When Chief of Police Parker (Nick Nolte, another actor often feted by the Academy) hears of O’Mara’s heroism, he enlists him to form a band of policemen to take down Cohen on the sly, with no warrants, out of the public eye, no rewards, and hopefully total anonymously to all but themselves.

The team O’Mara puts together is your usual band of ruffians, including jaded hotshot Sgt. Jerry Wooters—who, among other things, is sleeping with Cohen’s moll (Grace Faraday, as played by Emma Stone, here reteaming with her Crazy. Stupid. Love. co-star Gosling, as well as her Zombieland director Ruben Fleischer, who is also the director here). There’s sharpshooter Office Max Kennard (Robert Patrick) and his sweet Mexican protégé Officer Navidad Ramirez (Michael Peña); there’s technical geek and father Officer Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi); and finally, there’s Officer Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie), who knows the town’s underbelly and is good at throwing knives. I think this is the whole squad, but these characters aren’t exactly memorable, so I might be missing one or two. And then, of course, O’Mara has a pregnant wife (Mireille Enos), and there’s a cornucopia of bought-off cops, judges, reporters, etc.

If this all sounds an awful lot like The Untouchables, that’s because it is. And it’s also an awful lot like L.A. Confidential, Seven Samurai, Inglourious Basterds, The Wire, Boardwalk Empire, and nearly every single other film or HBO series that you can name. Except that everything that Gangster Squad feels like is exponentially better than Gangster Squad actually is. Maybe in that regard, the film it most feels like is the 2001 Frank Oz movie The Score, which brought Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, and Edward Norton together for an incredibly unexceptional heist movie. | Pete Timmermann

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