‘Gangster Squad’ goes for gorgeous gloss over true grit

Gangster Squad/2013/Warner Bros./113 min.

The much-hyped new neo-noir “Gangster Squad,” set in 1949 Los Angeles, falls prey to the same stereotypical failing that marks some Angelinos, then and now: It’s a wannabe. On the plus side, the movie is glossy looking and elegantly styled (many famous locations, from Slapsy Maxie’s to Clifton’s Cafeteria, are stunningly presented) with a star-studded cast.

Directed by Ruben Fleischer, there’s action aplenty, though it never feels like there’s much at stake. And its superficial, often cartoonish, virtues are undercut by a weak script, uneven performances and tepid emotion.

That’s too bad, given the long-standing allure of vintage LA and the fascinating source material for the film: Paul Lieberman’s crime saga, “Gangster Squad: Covert Cops, the Mob, and the Battle for Los Angeles,” which was based on the work of a secret LAPD unit that aimed to guard the city against gangsters. (The book began as a 2008 LA Times series.)

Their primary target: the ruthless and immensely powerful mob leader Mickey Cohen, portrayed in the film by Sean Penn. Josh Brolin plays ambitious good cop Sgt. John O’Mara (married and devoted to his wife); Ryan Gosling turns in another spare, cool performance as the wayward Sgt. Jerry Wooters who tangles with Cohen’s supposed mistress (Emma Stone). A growling, leonine Nick Nolte as police chief William H. Parker must muddle through lines like this one, addressed to O’Mara: “Los Angeles is a damsel in distress. And I need you to save her.”

Penn’s Cohen has similar clunkers. He tells us: “Back east, I was a gangster, out here I’m God.”

The strong cast does what it can, with Brolin, Gosling and Stone making the best of what they are given. But, thanks to Will Beall’s cliche-ridden script, Nolte starts to get mannered and Penn gives us a 2-D Cohen, unrelentingly brutal and ever-menacing. As talented as Penn is, he doesn’t seem to connect with this character and physically he’s an odd choice to play a brawny baby-faced former boxer. In 1949, Cohen was 36; Penn is 52. And if you know much of Cohen’s backstory (he avoided sex because of his OCD disorder), it’s hard to buy into the love-triangle element of this story, which is only very loosely based on fact.

“L.A. Confidential” this is not. But if you fancy gorging on some glitzy eye candy, this should do nicely.

“Gangster Squad” opens today nationwide. You can read author Tere Tereba’s piece Beyond the Gangster Squad: the Real Mickey Cohen here. Tere’s book on Cohen was selected  by KCET as one of the best books of 2012. 

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Crime comedy ‘30 Minutes or Less’ fails to deliver

30 Minutes or Less/2011/Columbia Pictures/83 min.

Asking for a refund at a movie theater is an old joke. But it’s funnier than most of the material in “30 Minutes or Less,” by director Ruben Fleischer.

The premise has potential – a feckless pizza delivery guy (Jesse Eisenberg) is coerced into robbing a bank by two yahoos (Danny McBride and Nick Swardson) who need to raise cash to pay a hitman (Michael Peña). Pizza guy ropes his straight-arrow best friend (Aziz Ansari) into helping him.

There’s a smart, pretty girl involved (Dilshad Vadsaria). There’s a deadline and a ticking bomb. Worlds could collide, tension could build, funny lines could pop out of the mouths of authentically drawn characters.

Early on, it’s clear that none of the above is going to happen. Though the cast makes an effort (especially Ansari and Peña), the weak script by Michael Diliberti makes no sense, the flat direction induces yawns and cringes in equal measure, and the increasingly desperate hodgepodge of gags in the hopes that something will stick is downright tedious.

Having been a fan of Fleischer’s “Zombieland” from 2009 (written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick), I was looking forward to “30 Minutes or Less.” I like Eisenberg and respect his talent. I’m from Michigan (the film is set in Grand Rapids). I wanted to like this movie!

As it turned out, though, I couldn’t shake the feeling that “30 Minutes” was a project by a group of high school kids. Even then, you might get some good laughs appealing to your juvenile side. But my inner child quickly curled up for a nap and the three boys in the next row might as well have been taking an exam, so thick was their silence throughout the flick.

“30 Minutes or Less” was 83 minutes I wish I’d spent some other way.

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