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Crime and Punishment: Gangster Squad and Broken City

Ruben Fleischer’s Gangster Squad, a period piece based on the novel by Paul Lieberman, starts with a gruesome punishment. Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), the mobster kingpin of '50s era Los Angeles, takes out his wrath on a rival mobster by tying him to two cars and letting them literally rip him in two. Cohen, whose name is perhaps the most overt stereotype to have emerged from cinema in recent memory, is all rough, sharp delivery, his face full of craggy lines. He owns Los Angeles, as he makes very clear with his bravado one-liners, and his crime spree is too much for the LAPD to handle. The cops assemble a team of elite police officers to take down Cohen once and for all, hence the name “Gangster Squad.”

Headed by the terse John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), the gangster squad includes a hotshot young cop (Ryan Gosling), an experienced techie (Giovanni Ribisi), a detective and knives expert (Anthony Mackie) and someone else (Michael Pena) whose role I bet even the script-writer can’t explain. Gosling gets the most screentime here and jacks up his voice an octave to deliver all his lines in a creepy falsetto. I’m not sure what he was thinking, but his usually spot-on acting is here sorely in need of coaching. This aside from the thin characterization of the script (by Will Beall) and the plotlines you can see from a mile away. Gosling meets Cohen’s plaything Grace Faraday (Emma Stone) and seduces her within about ten hackneyed sentences of their meeting at a bar.

Many of the actors have done fine work in other films. What’s lacking here is focus and dimension. Someone for some reason assembled a half-dozen veteran actors so that they could fumble with their under-developed characters and look ironic doing it. The movie comes off as contrived and arbitrary, two attributes of performance that easily torpedo any seriousness the film might have scrounged together. When the camera indulgently lingers on a young shoeshine boy, you just know immediately that he'll be killed in order to galvanize the team to action.

About that killing . . . In all the films shootouts, of which there are many, the violence is unflinching and interminable. I'm not against movie violence per se, and I don't know enough about the correlation in statistics between gun use in movies and gun control in reality to rail against its use in film. But I do know that violence in movies only adds to the movie experience if it is used for a purpose. Gangster Squad is not only hard to watch, it is indulgent and ridiculously lurid. Violence is not used tastefully, or even for its own sake, a la Tarantino’s stylized, pop-art. Here its something the filmmakers used instead of mimetic realism, somehow, and the effect is not only unexpected but tiring. You know the drill, how at the movie's end, set at a giant shootout in a tower hotel, all the blood spatters to the four corners of the screen, while dozens of empty bullet casings fall slo-mo to the floor. I couldn’t help but yawn. Its not awful film-making, its just irresponsible. Whoever made this movie could have done it in his sleep.

Allen Hughes’ Broken City, a more passable crime flick, stars Russell Crowe and Mark Wahlberg, with a gritty screenplay by Brian Tucker. Sure the movie feels like a noirish, formulaic, two-hour episode of Law and Order. But it held my attention, which is enough for me when I go see a movie.

Mark Wahlberg is Billy Taggart, an ex-cop, dependable, hardworking, a smooth character that Wahlberg, a good actor in my opinion, plays with stolid charisma. Wahlberg doesn’t betray much emotion in his scenes, but that’s to be expected from an ex-cop, and I found his character appealing in a stoic, likeable way. He’s quite a good foil then to Mayor Nicholas Hostetler (Russell Crowe), the incumbent who is trying to beat newcomer Jack Valliant in New York City’s upcoming mayoral elections. Crowe indulges in his role, playing a powerful and smart politician who’s also somewhat of a pansy, the type of friend who likes fine wine but doesn't know much about it. The mayor’s wife Cathleen (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is having an affair so the mayor asks Taggart, now a private detective, to find out more about her. From there the movie delves into political intrigue and Taggart’s efforts to uncover the city’s closetful of secrets. The movie is a cross between a political thriller and a crime drama, with some slight twists that are standard for a detective story.

Broken City has its flaws, but what movie doesn't? The performances are understated, what others might call plain but what I prefer to call simple. All that is allowed because the movie knows its place, which is not among earth-shattering, high-aesthetic cinema, but the prosaic, the gritty crime dramas that TV is often very good at. A crime drama doesn't need mounds of creative impetus to work on its own, and Broken City's immaterial plot is okay with that. The dark cinematography complements the tone of the movie. Crowe does a damn good New York accent. It holds your attention for two hours at a theater. It's what you go to the movies to see.

On the other hand, Gangster Squad is a waste of time and money. I'm not talking about your money, I'm referring to the millions of dollars that Village Roadshow Pictures funneled into the movie’s set details and headlining cast, even though the film is drab and screams of mediocrity. Despite visually appealing detailed production, the dialogue is laughable, the characters soulless, and the plot a stewed morass of clichés. There are enough great movies in theaters that you can just skip this one and save yourself twelve bucks. Spend your money on Broken City instead.