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Gangster Squad' looks better than it is

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Film puts style over substance

There's a lot of fun to be had with period pieces especially when you've got an enthusiastic cast. It's interesting to see that even the most well-regarded movie star can get a little giddy when you tell him to put on a fedora, brandish a tommy gun and talk tough.

That's the new movie 'Gangster Squad' at its core. It's an undeniably stylish film visually striking with a cast that can't help but delight in the movie that they're making. Unfortunately, there's not a lot of substance here; the characterizations are weak and the story is thin. It's all sizzle and no steak.

There's a degree of lawlessness in 1949 Los Angeles. An eastern gangster named Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn, 'The Tree of Life') is dominating the organized crime factions in the city, bringing everything under his control through a combination of rough charm and viciousness. Even the police are in his pocket.

But there are some who want to fight back. Sergeant John O'Mara (Josh Brolin, 'Men in Black 3') is a war veteran who won't be bought. So Police Chief Parker (Nick Nolte, 'Warrior') asks O'Mara to spearhead a 'gangster squad' a group of police officers working off the books, taking on Cohen and his forces on terms outside of traditional law enforcement methods.

O'Mara pulls in a group of misfits, including his buddy Jerry (Ryan Gosling, 'The Ides of March'), a ladies' man who just happens to be involved with one of Cohen's female associates, a woman named Grace (Emma Stone, 'The Amazing Spider-Man'). He also recruits a hard case (Anthony Mackie, 'Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter'), a legendary gunman (Robert Patrick, 'Trouble with the Curve') and a mechanical whiz (Giovanni Ribisi, 'Ted').

The group starts hitting Cohen where it hurts, greatly damaging his organization. However, when Cohen finally realizes that his enemies are cops and not fellow gangsters, he makes plans to exact his revenge, sending him on a confrontational collision course with the men of the Gangster Squad.

First things first this movie looks great. The overall visual aesthetic is just striking, with a lush color palate, a wonderful period vibe and some really innovative and interesting shot selections. Director Ruben Fleischer perhaps best known for 'Zombieland' has a gift for creating engaging screen images.

However, the look of the thing isn't enough. There's just not a lot of story here everyone's motivations and attitudes are crudely drawn. While the goal might have been to ask questions like 'If the good guys use bad methods to catch the bad guys, are they themselves bad guys?' and such, the truth is that the characters on the whole feel more like window dressing mannequins and marionettes being arranged by the director into pretty pictures.

The performances aren't terrible the actors are having too much fun playing dress-up for that but there's not a lot of depth. Brolin is your standard tough guy, Gosling your standard womanizer, Stone your standard bombshell. Pretty much the only guy who goes above and beyond is Penn, whose portrayal of Mickey Cohen is all reedy-voiced scenery-chewing, with eyes and biceps bulging. Penn usually makes it look effortless; it's the opposite this time.

There's nothing inherently wrong with 'Gangster Squad' it's perfectly serviceable popular entertainment. But for those who were expecting a bit more depth of meaning, you will likely find yourself more than a little disappointed.

2 out of 5

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