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Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but while GANGSTER SQUAD obviously admires Brian De Palma’s THE UNTOUCHABLES, and tries very, very hard to be a variation on that classic, it does not have Mr. De Palma directing, nor does it have David Mamet writing the script. What it does have is a series of gorgeously conceived tableaux around which the story (loosely, very loosely based on fact) is built. The result is at times disjointed, at times ludicrous, but darn if it doesn’t always have just the right art direction and lighting.
The time in 1949, and gangster Mickey Cohen’s attempts to take over Los Angeles is taken personally by Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), a veteran with military guerilla training and an unswerving devotion to doing the right thing, even when it may also be construed as the stupid thing. Cohen (Sean Penn) is the reason O’Mara had to take down a building full of white slavers all by himself, in a sequence that exemplifies both the disjointed and the ludicrous nature of the film. It is also beautifully lit and catches the right tone of seedy desperation thanks to the finely realized sets, also both emblematic of the effort.
Having proven himself a dynamo and a do-gooder who does not discourage easily, O’Mara is soon tasked by the chief of police (a croaking Nick Nolte) with bringing Cohen down. The catch is that killing him won’t solve anything, he has to make the town impossible for Cohen to conduct his operation. With a granite jaw, and a noble squint, O’Mara, assisted by his loving and suitably concerned pregnant wife (Mireille Enos), handpicks a squad of like-minded cops, and then goes to war. Or, rather, as the film points out with a none too subtle hand, returns to the war mentality he can’t leave behind now that peace has broken out.
Fans of THE UNTOUCHABLES will recognize the members of that squad, they will also know which of them will bite the dust in pursuit of Cohen. They will also find that the music, lush, and insistently swelling, evokes that of the earlier film. The one new touch is Grace (Emma Stone), the tough cookie who teaches etiquette of many varieties to Cohen, and on the side hooks up with Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), a cop who has given up on trying to eliminate crime and is now concentrating on his hip flask and having a good time.
There is nothing so obvious as a scene-by-scene replication of THE UNTOUCHABLES, but the general arc of the story is the same, as are many of the details, right down to O’Mara’s wife being pregnant, red-haired, and just oh so proud of her husband. Penn, in a blustery performance that lays on the brio along with the psychosis, even has a speech that echoes Capone’s “I want them dead” tirade.
On the other had, this film has a crackerjack cast that, like Penn, gives its all to insipid dialogue rife with clichés and undercut by derivative direction. Brolin, stuck with the role that has the least amount of fun to it still manages to make stalwart and stolid breathe instead of turning to stone. Gosling is suitably cynical, though forced to take part in a scene of stomach-turning pathos at one point. Anthony Mackie is smooth as a cool jazz riff with little else to do but decry deployment to Burbank. Robert Patrick deadpans his cowboy character, gifted with an eagle eye and an unfussy devotion to fair play, beyond being a stock character, while Giovanni Ribisi, as the brains of the organization, makes the best of being the one to look askance with his big button eyes and rosebud of a mouth as the others do stupid, illegal things in the name of truth, justice, and the American way.
GANGSTER SQUAD takes time out from its busy schedule of gruesome executions, exploding cars, and violent beatings to ponder the rightness of stooping to the criminals’ level in order to defeat them. As with so much else here, it is a perfunctory bit of dialogue intended to do little more than kill time before the next gorgeous tableau.