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Friday, March 6, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 3.0° F  Fair
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Gangster Squad rips off The Untouchables
Stop, thief!
Lots of characters, little character development.
Lots of characters, little character development.

Early in Gangster Squad, 1950s Los Angeles crime kingpin Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) tells a Mafia rival that he's no longer beholden to the Italians in Chicago because he's got a new vision for doing business. It's kind of ironic since Gangster Squad ends up doing nearly everything "the Chicago way."

Specifically, director Ruben Fleischer's fact-based story feels like an attempt at remaking Brian DePalma's 1987 classic The Untouchables. Penn's above-the-law Cohen replaces Robert DeNiro's above-the-law Al Capone; Sgt. John O'Mara (Josh Brolin) is the straight-arrow, family-man law-enforcement official tasked with bringing Cohen down. And he puts together a team of like-minded uncorrupted cops (Ryan Gosling, Robert Patrick, Michael Peña, Anthony Mackie and Giovanni Ribisi) who can make life miserable for Cohen and his crew. Even the tense set pieces that accompany the stylized gunplay and over-the-top violence, which includes one guy being torn in half and another executed with a power drill, feel like riffs on DePalma's filmmaking.

The whole package is sporadically effective for a while, primarily in the sheer momentum it builds. It's also fairly satisfying in the places it diverges most from The Untouchables, especially when Gosling's cynical, reluctantly crusading cop flirts with Cohen's girl (Emma Stone, who was also Gosling's romantic interest in Crazy, Stupid, Love).

But eventually it becomes clear that there's just not enough going on beneath the surface when it comes to character relationships. To make matters worse, the surface itself starts to feel far too familiar as Fleischer mimics the style and structure of The Untouchables. And perhaps it would've been a good idea for him to tell Penn that the "visionary" Cohen could have been played a bit more as a savvy businessman and a bit less as a raving psychotic.

All in all, Gangster Squad shows that stealing from the best is no guarantee of success.

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