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Lifestyle

January 11, 2013

'Gangster Squad': Boys, toys and colorful violence

PASADENA, Calif. — Slick, sick, self-consciously stylish and defiantly shallow, "Gangster Squad" is one of those movies you can't talk about without invoking other (often better) movies. A lot of movies.

"L.A. Confidential." "The Untouchables." "Chinatown." "Bugsy." "Dick Tracy." "The Magnificent Seven." "Rampart" (with an asterisk). Those are just a few of the films liberally quoted in Ruben Fleischer's attractive but tediously derivative post-war crime drama. Even Michael Mann's cheesy-looking "Public Enemies" gets its due in the digitally-filmed "Gangster Squad," which is so poorly lit during its climactic sequences that it resembles bad daytime television.

The action opens in 1949, when a pathological crime boss named Mickey Cohen — played by a prosthetic-schnozzed Sean Penn serving an over-salted slab of pure ham — is running Los Angeles' brothels, drug trade and police department with sadistic fury. (We meet Cohen just as he's halving an opponent for dinner — and no, that's not a typo, the dinner is for a couple of coyotes.)

One of the few cops Cohen hasn't bought is John O'Mara (Josh Brolin), a straight shooter and World War II hero with a pregnant wife at home and a yen for fighting the good fight. When O'Mara is enlisted by police chief William Parker (Nick Nolte) to go off the books to wipe Cohen out, the square-jawed vet enlists a ragtag team of misfits (played by Anthony Mackie, Michael Pena, Giovanni Ribisi and Robert Patrick) that could have stepped out of any war picture "Gangster Squad" continually references.

The most interesting of the vigilantes is Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), who, early in the film, becomes entangled with Cohen's main squeeze, a creamy, Jessica Rabbit-esque bombshell named Grace. Lucky for viewers that Grace is played by the sensational Emma Stone, giving them a chance once again to luxuriate in the chemistry she and Gosling can generate in just one smoldering glance. Lucky, too, that Fleischer has cast "The Killing's" Mireille Enos as O'Mara's spirited wife Connie, who, as channeled through Enos' naturalism and warmth, cuts right through her husband's macho posturing.

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