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All action and no creativity

Perfunctory action scenes dim the big-name stars in Gangster Squad

Gangster Squad
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
Gangster Squad
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

January is shaping up to be quite a strange month for movie releases. On one hand, you have prestige movies such as The Impossible and Zero Dark Thirty expanding into wide release after short Oscar-qualifying runs in New York and L.A. On the other, you have mediocre-looking films dumped in a month when movie attendance typically drops.

Somewhere in the middle of that divide stands Gangster Squad, a film that was originally set for release in September 2012. It was delayed after the mass shooting in an Aurora, Colorado movie theater, as one of the scenes in the trailer also featured a movie theater shooting.

That seemed to be the only real reason for the delay, because the film was packed full of big stars such as Ryan Gosling, Josh Brolin, Emma Stone and Sean Penn. Based on a true story, it follows a group of Los Angeles policeman who are tasked with taking down the city’s preeminent mobster, Mickey Cohen (Penn).

 Gangster Squad lives up to the bloody reputation of Ruben Fleischer’s first film, Zombieland.

But taking him down doesn’t involve any arrests; instead they’re given tacit approval to become gangsters themselves, using whatever means necessary to ensure Cohen doesn’t become the crime lord he dreams of being.

As directed by Ruben Fleischer, Gangster Squad lives up to the bloody reputation of Fleischer’s first film, Zombieland. No holds are barred, from basic fist fights to gun battles to dismemberments. But it’s as if Fleischer is including the violence simply because the story calls for it, not because it has any kind of entertainment value.

That simplicity is evident in the storytelling as well. There’s little nuance in the progression of the plot; Fleischer and screenwriter Will Beall rarely go beyond skin deep for any of the plot twists or character backgrounds.

It’s clear the film’s goal is merely to present this slice of American history as a good old-fashioned actioner — nothing more, nothing less. Although that’s certainly fun for a decent portion of the film, it doesn’t live up to the intricacies of the actual story being told or the pedigree of the actors involved.

That talent shines through despite the movie’s other faults. Gosling affects a semi-effete demeanor that makes his character’s explosions all the more effective. Brolin is solid as the brutish squad leader. Stone plays the femme fatale well, although her character is underwritten. And Penn is as fiery as ever as Cohen, even if he occasionally hams it up a bit too much.

It’s hard to know what to make of Gangster Squad. The scene that caused controversy has been excised; did that perhaps lead Fleischer to make other edits that changed what the film could have been? Only he and his fellow filmmakers know for sure, but what we’re left with is a run-of-the-mill film that feels right at home in the month of January.

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