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Stylish ‘Gangster Squad’ can’t pull itself together

- - Thursday, January 10, 2013

After "Gangster Squad," I'm convinced: There's a pretty good movie to be made called "Gangster Squad." Sadly, this isn't it.

At its best, "Gangster Squad" offers a solid hint as to what that good movie might be like. It's stylish and succinct and propelled by swift, bloody shoot-em-ups and a few zippy one-liners. There's a slew of big stars giving the camera million-dollar looks, and set design that evokes Hollywood's classic gangster tropes filtered through a modern sensibility. I'd say it's all there, except that if you puncture the movie's surface, there's really nothing there. It's an empty promise — like a two-hour trailer for a better movie that's also called "Gangster Squad."

You've seen this movie before, and better, when it was called "L.A. Confidential": One big difference is that movie had a plot. "Gangster Squad," in contrast, merely has a premise: A team of rogue cops led by Sgt. John O'Mara (Josh Brolin) take on Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), a notorious gangster who's set to take control of Los Angeles. O'Mara spends the first quarter of the movie putting together a team, the rest of it launching foolhardy head-on attacks against Cohen.

It's possible that the brazenness of these attacks is intended to come off as a sign of bravery, but they look more like signs of signs of stupidity. When O'Mara's right-hand man, Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), warns that bullheaded attacks aren't likely to be effective forever, O'Mara's response boils down to: They're working now. It's hard to tell whether O'Mara or screenwriter Will Beall put less thought into the story.

What's clear is that Mr. Beall put almost no effort into the movie's dialogue. The script is laden with cop-movie cliches. "We've got rules around here," a gruff police lieutenant says to O'Mara. "Do yourself a favor: Learn 'em."

The movie plays strictly by the book. What fun there is comes from seeing top-notch actors go through the predictable motions. Mr. Gosling remains a sly presence whose capacity for rapid descent into rage still manages to surprise. Mr. Penn hams it up in a paint-by-numbers villain role, while Mr. Brolin offers a fine range of stern looks as the movie's morally upright hero.

More than any of the leads, however, I enjoyed watching Nick Nolte as the grizzled police chief. In his later years, Mr. Nolte's voice, always a rough treasure, has become something to behold: Each word and phrase sounds as if it is rumbling through a deep gravel pit, scratched by jagged glass, and filtered through sandpaper. Mr. Nolte, meanwhile, has stopped playing characters and now merely shows up as a version of himself — the battered old codger who's seen it all.

It's an easy enough attitude to adopt with a derivative movie like "Gangster Squad." It has its moments, but you've seen it all before.

★★

TITLE: "Gangster Squad"

CREDITS: Directed by Ruben Fleischer, screenplay by Will Beall

RATING: R for salty language, gore, violence

RUNNING TIME: 113 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS