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Sean Penn shines in crime saga about legendary mobster

“Gangster Squad”

Excellent (4 stars)

Rated R for profanity and graphic violence

Running time: 113 minutes

Distributor: Warner Brothers

Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) was born and raised in Brooklyn where he started out as a prizefighter before moving to Chicago during Prohibition to become an enforcer for Al Capone. In the Forties, he was sent by Meyer Lansky to Los Angeles to establish extortion, gambling, prostitution and loan shark operations on behalf of the Jewish Mafia.

Mickey gradually began to make inroads, which didn’t sit well with LA Police Chief Bill Parker (Nick Nolte) who was determined to prevent any crime syndicate from gaining a foothold in his city. But that would prove easier said than done since the vicious mobster had already succeeded in bribing and/or intimidating many cops, judges and powerful politicians.

Given the frightening degree of corruption, Parker decided that the only way to bring down Mickey was to behave just as ruthlessly. So, he asked one of his most fearless officers, Sergeant John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), to form a top secret team whose mission would be to enforce the law by breaking it.

For, the so-called Gangster Squad’s mission was simply to enter each of Cohen’s establishments anonymously in order to break kneecaps and generally trash the place. Of course, if any of O’Mara’s goons were killed or captured, the Commissioner would have to disavow any knowledge of their actions.

Thus unfolds Gangster Squad, a stylized costume drama with far more charm than one would ordinarily expect to find in an old-fashioned shoot ‘em up. Directed by Ruben Fleisher (Zombieland), the film is based on the clever Paul Lieberman best-seller of the same name.

The production was blessed with an A-list cast which includes Sean Penn, Ryan Gosling, Josh Brolin, Emma Stone, Nick Nolte, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, Michael Pena, Robert Patrick and Mireille Enos. Therefiore, there are no throwaway roles here, with even lesser characters benefitting from development as a consequence of veteran thespians putting their all into their performances.

As a result, you come to care not only about whether or not Mickey will ever be brought to justice, but about surprisingly-engaging subplots involving a lawman (Gosling) going gaga over the gangsta’s moll (Stone), and about a pregnant wife’s (Enos) worry about whether her gung-ho hubby’s (Brolin) will live long enough to witness his baby’s birth. Nevertheless, the front story does feature all the staples of the genre, from flashy Zoot suits to Tommy guns to street smart dialogue mixing slang and savoir faire in a manner reminiscent of Damon Runyon.

A high body-count showdown between rogue cops and the Kosher Nostra for the future of Los Angeles!

Updated 9:23 am, January 15, 2013:
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