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January 18, 2013

'Gangster Squad' a filmmaking crime

“Gangster Squad” may be loosely based on truth — the takedown of notorious Los Angeles crime lord Mickey Cohen 60 years ago — but it feels about as real as a mob-themed costume party.

At least there’s a certain sport in counting how many neo-noir cliches director Ruben Fleischer (“Zombieland,” “30 Minutes or Less”) can get his all-star cast to engage in over the course of nearly two hours.

Sean Penn, trapped underneath a layer of unconvincing makeup that makes him look more like a Batman or Dick Tracy villain, is Cohen, the man who ruled the L.A. underworld in the late ‘40s. He’s out to set up the biggest illicit gambling operation on the West Coast. And since he’s eliminated all of his criminal competition and has much of the police force in his pocket, who’s going to tell him no?

Enter the LAPD’s mid-century modern version of the Justice League, a super-secret crew put together by police chief William Parker (Nick Nolte) to smash Cohen’s operations. There’s square-jawed war hero Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), his best pal and cynical ladies’ man Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), switchblade-wielding street cop Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie), wiretap expert Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi), master marksman Max Kennard (Robert Patrick), and energetic new detective Navidad Ramirez (Michael Peña).

That they just happen to look stylishly natty in their fedoras and suits while drinking Nehi sodas or, in the case of Wooters, seducing Cohen’s sexy moll, Grace (Emma Stone), just makes them all radiate even more of an aura of crime-fighting cool.

Working from a script by Will Beall (which in turn is based on a non-fiction book, “Gangster Squad,” by Paul Lieberman), Fleischer keeps things moving briskly so viewers don’t have too much time to ponder why they should be watching “L.A. Confidential,” “The Untouchables,” or the master work “Chinatown” again instead of this knockoff. It helps that “Gangster” looks ravishing (thanks to cinematographer Dion Beebe, the director of photography on the “Miami Vice” movie), as Fleischer indulges every one of his Raymond Chandler fantasies.

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