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Rugger Review: Gangster Squad


Summary: In 1949, a police sergeant is given the task of keeping the East Coast Mafia out of Los Angeles, starting with high-rolling gang boss Mickey Cohen. He assembles a squad willing to work outside the law and do whatever it takes to get the job done.

This time last year I put Gangster Squad at the top of my “Must-See Movies of 2012″ list.

The trailer had blown me away, ending with a scene of three men bursting through a cinema screen, firing off their “Tommy” guns.

Yet after the shocking Aurora cinema shooting in July, Gangster Squad was pushed back, and this entertaining-looking scene was deemed too risky and was removed, to be replaced with a shootout in Chinatown.

After watching the film, it’s hard to tell where this scene would fit in, and how much of the final third of the film was re-wrote and re-shot to accommodate this change. The discussion about whether it should have been removed at all is one for another time.

I had wholly expected the final section to be all over the place as most films that edit scenes after completion usually lose some of its momentum by doing so.

The fact that Gangster Squad actually shifts up a gear in the final third, is testament to the brilliance of director Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland) who confidently handles the film like a seasoned pro.

Based on a (sort of) true story, Gangster Squad chronicles the late 40s and early 50s of mafia-run Los Angeles, where honest cop John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) seems to be the only one not willing to bend to the rules of crime boss Cohen, who owns the city.

After getting the go-ahead by his police chief (a raspy Nick Nolte), O’Mara forms the Gangster Squad with the aim of taking down the mafia one casino/bank/paint store at a time, off the books and without back-up.

Within this squad we have an eclectic mix of seasoned vets (Robert Patrick) and up and comers (Anthony Mackie) who all have their individual talents which become useful throughout the film.

The big draw here, though, is man of the moment Ryan Gosling. He gets many of the best moments, and the best lines, and despite coming off as nothing more than a pretty face to begin with, those Drive-esque violent tendencies start to shine through.

His relationship with Cohen’s girlfriend Grace (Emma Stone) might seem like their Crazy Stupid Love romance in fancy dress, but it adds extra burden to a film where risks and loss don’t weigh heavily.

Sean Penn as Cohen however, almost steals the film from underneath everyone’s noses. Snarling and growling his way through the film, it is clear Penn hasn’t had this much fun in a long time.

The only miscalculation is that Cohen isn’t charming enough to root for in a “we love to hate” way, which is normally how you can define a great screen villain.

So far, so The Untouchables. There’s no denying the similarities between the two films. But the stylistic choices make Gangster Squad stand out that little bit more, almost as if it has been ripped from the pages of a graphic novel.

A night time jailbreak scene is lit up by muzzle flashes, a car chase is blurred by dust clouds and the sets and costumes are perfectly reflective of the era.

The climatic gun battle is deafening and tense but directed with a self-assured confidence that shows us that Fleischer’s last film – 30 Minutes or Less – was an unfortunate blip after his stellar debut with Zombieland.

Yet it seems like few risks were taken, leaving a feeling that the studio has played it safe when they should have taken a gamble. Maybe they should have left that cinema shootout in the film after all.

Final Verdict: Despite some enthralling set pieces and great work from the cast, there is some spark missing that will keep Gangster Squad rising to the heights of The Untouchables. Yet it is still an appealing and entertaining journey from start to finish and was certainly worth waiting a year for.

Star Rating: 4/5

* Review by Stephen Connolly


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