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Even 1940s charm can't save bloody 'Gangster Squad'

REVIEW: "Gangster Squad" made the news last summer before most moviegoers had even heard of it. A scene in the film's trailer shows four men with automatic weapons who stand behind a movie screen and fire through it at the seated audience while a movie airs, then walk through the holes their bullets made in the screen and continue firing.

The scene would've been brutally violent in any context, but after the horrific shootings at a Colorado theater showing "The Dark Knight Rises," the trailer was pulled and the film altered. That scene's now gone from the film, and those who haven't heard of the controversy wouldn't ever notice its omission. (The released film contains a scene with a shooting in Chinatown, which reportedly was added in as a replacement for the theater scene.)

But as with "Jack Reacher," which came out just a week after the Connecticut school shootings and opens with a sniper who takes aim on innocents, including a young girl, it's going to be tough for many -- perhaps all -- to see the sheer amount of violence in "Gangster Squad" and not wonder about it.

Actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who's acted in his share of violent films, has come out and said that Hollywood can't be blamed for real-life shootings like those in Colorado and Connecticut. And in a lively discussion on the TODAY Facebook page, many readers agreed with the former California governor.

"Watching Roadrunner-(Wile E.) Coyote cartoons did not make me hit people on the head with an anvil," wrote reader Abel Garcia.

And indeed that's true. Few Acme anvil murders have been reported even when Looney Tunes was at the height of its popularity. But that doesn't mean it's easy to sit and watch the sheer unrelenting violence that flows across the screen in "Gangster Squad," to see a pregnant woman shot at over and over again, to watch a man murdered with a giant drill and then see the camera quickly switch -- in a supposedly witty segue -- to a raw hamburger patty sizzling on a grill.

But suppose you can take as much violence as Hollywood cares to dish out here, from the guy ripped in half by a car and quickly devoured  by coyotes to the henchmen burned up in an elevator. Even then, "Gangster Squad" is no "Godfather," no "L.A. Confidential." It doesn't delve into the minds of its characters like those films, doesn't use its richly painted retro setting for anything meaningful.

Josh Brolin stars as Sgt. John O'Mara, an Irish cop who sets out to stop New York mobster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) from taking over Los Angeles. It's 1949, and Brolin and his pals repeatedly remind us that they're World War II vets, who fought for freedom overseas and aren't about to give up fighting back at home. But there's no real indication of how the war hardened or changed them, only the constant repetition that they are veterans. Which every man was back then, and few needed to trumpet.

Penn, so good in so many films, has just two emotions here: "I'm About To Go Full-Blown Completely Freakout Psycho," and "Here I Am, In Full-Blown Completely Freakout Psycho Mode." There's never a sense, as we got from the Corleones in "The Godfather" or even Tony Soprano in "The Sopranos," that Cohen has anything in his personality that would make him a leader. He's just a sadistic crazy who's bound to turn on anyone he's ever met, including lovely girlfriend Emma Stone.

Ryan Gosling utilizes his Hey-Girl charm as the womanizing member of the squad, with Robert Patrick as the sharpshooting cowboy, Giovanni Ribisi as the brainiac, and Anthony Mackie as the black guy who hates Burbank. Seriously, he's given no other distinguishing characteristics, but at least he's slightly more of a full squad member than Michael Pena, who plays the group's lone Mexican member.

The screenplay never avoids a chance to remind us that Cohen is Bad with a capital B. After he has the man torn apart and fed to coyotes, his henchmen sweet-talk a midwestern innocent fresh off the bus into a hotel room where they plan to gang-rape her. O'Mara's able to smash his way in one-handed and stop it, of course, because that's the kind of movie this is. Uncomplicated evil meets uncomplicated good, and blood and brains grease the path. 

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