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. "Gangster Squad"

One of the things that TV writer-director Ruben Fleischer's ("Fantasy Factory" TV series) and his writing team's take on Los Angeles crime is that even gangsterism is all about concept. If you conceive of yourself running a criminal enterprise in a major metropolis and keeping the east coast hoods away from your turf, it's possible that it can be pulled off. Of course, it's not concept alone that allows a criminal to make himself important, but as the film depicts it, back in the 40's, Brooklyn-born, ex-boxer Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn, "Mystic River") saw his way to Los Angeles and violated the city.

The result is a high-test action pic about a bad guy that's as much a period piece of L.A. history as an ammo-packed piece of excitement in the city where noir was born. Based on Paul Lieberman's book, "Gangster Squad: Covert Cops, the Mob, and the Battle for Los Angeles," strict history isn't the standard here. In fact, it's one of the casualties. Entertainment is what counts, and this, if you can take the violence and sociopathic ruin, is pure fun, loud and fast -- complete with tough and fearless cops, a gun-moll to die for, and all the mob tropes that worked so well back when Edward G. Robinson was an essential part of such movies.

Cohen knew that his path to success was lined with green, and he dispensed it generously to anyone with a title that involved law-enforcement and/or justice. Fortunately for the city, his payoffs didn't reach the upper echelon in the form of police chief William Parker (Nick Nolte, "Warrior"). He'd had it with the dead bodies littering the landscape. His version of the city was not Chicago, New York or Vegas.

When one of his sergeants, Dick Tracy-jawed Irish ex-marine John O'Mara (Josh Brolin, "True Grit"), puts a stop to one of Cohen's prostitution rings, Parker finds the means to close the books on the gangster in his midst. He commissions O'Mara to form a team of equally daring and resolute men to operate below the radar to quash Cohen's building empire without the murderous thug knowing what hit him.

The problem being that most of O'Mara's "colleagues" on the force were on Cohen's payroll enjoying the benefits of corruption. This included free admission to Cohen's establishments: nightclubs, betting parlors, sexual favors, etc. What a life. But, that's how Cohen nearly realized his dream of making his operation the central hub of gambling profits nationwide. He was becoming a gangster's gangster, which the back east boys were beginning not to like.

As interesting as the story of corruption and counterforce is and as explosive as the action gets, Fleischer takes a chance by stretching credulity in the extremes of bullet count he allows on screen. I mean, these guys waste more lead than a beginning fisherman. On the other hand (and most enjoyably), the team member who was chosen for his marksman skill, Officer Max Kennard (Robert Patrick, "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines"), not only never misses, he makes shots with his pistol that would put him in a museum alongside all those dead-eye western heroes with an infallible six-shooter.

While this part of the plot proceeds apace, the emotional seeds of an attraction between slick team member and O'Mara's close friend Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling, "The Ides of March") and Cohen's moll, the rivetingly gorgeous redhead, Grace Faraday (Emma Stone, "The Amazing Spiderman"), are taking root. I mean, in the male-dominant ambience of this throwback thriller, this hot-as-a-pistol babe shines a light that's dazzling. That is, if you are male and have a heartbeat.

Look, let me take some credit here. When I first discovered just how good Josh Brolin is in "No Country For Old Men," I knew he was going to be cast for very big, diversified and important work. It's in his quality that works in a wide range of genres ("W," "MIB"). And, there's no denying that his enormous charisma plays a vital role here. It's all the more impressive when he's central in this company of players.

Penn gives us the virulent strain of criminality that is forever metastasizing within society. Physically, he makes no effort to look like the real character, who was, when he was in L.A., round and well beyond his boxing days' fitness. In newspapers he looked harmless and word was he was kind and generous to reporters and other civilians he met. But Penn, cut and proportioned like a gym-rat, portrays him as a man without regard for human life. And, it looks like Penn enjoyed every minute of it.

Gosling constructs a character of smooth, snappy containment and unassailable loyalty, giving him an attractive sensibility among his tough mates as well as making his hookup with Stone one we root for. Patrick, sporting a handlebar moustache and a cigar brings to mind a number of hot-shot cowpokes of the old west, and it may be one of his best roles to date.

Michael Pena, Patrick's sidekick, is the quiet one and, though he complained of the brevity of his lines in "Gangster Squad" during a Q&A I attended ("End of Watch," he's eloquent in what he does with those silences. Giovanni Ribisi was chosen as the nerdly technical guy on the crew, which he plays exceedingly well for the needs of the storyline. Anthony Mackie ("The Hurt Locker") delivers some of the choice lines that are as sharp as the suit and tie that is the uniform of choice for the squad. Nolte seems to struggle with his lines, but he's convincing as the corruption-plagued chief. And, it's a true fact that Darryl Gates was his driver and later became chief of the city.

The action is well staged with the visual aspects of the locale and period well construed and, even, stunning. Cinematographer Dion Beebe ("Green Lantern") masterfully made the most of Maher Ahmad's production design with textured source lighting for a lot of exterior night work and sparkling interiors. The easiest thing he had to do was light Emma Stone.

Artificiality? Over-dramatized violence? Heck, I viewed it through the eyes of the teenagers for whom it was intended and found it stylish even if it does suffer from a lack of historical accuracy and restraint. There's enough entertainment in Fleischer's visualization that I Green Light it for a lot of young men and women who are going to eat this stuff up.

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                                              ~~  Jules Brenner  
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Josh Brolin as John O'Mara leads the secret team
that dared to invade a mob boss's territory.

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