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GANGSTER SQUAD

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Imagine a dumbed-down version of “The Untouchables” done in floridly violent comic-book style and you’ll have some idea of what Ruben Fleischer’s “Gangster Squad” is like. Focusing on a covert police unit formed to bring down the Los Angeles empire of mobster Mickey Cohen in the late forties, its first victim is historical accuracy. Its second is any hint of good cinematic taste—a quality that actually worked to the benefit of Fleischer’s cheekily outrageous “Zombieland” (though not his awful follow-up “30 Minutes or Less”) but results here in a ridiculously glossy, hilariously cliched piece of movie pulp.

Will Beall’s script is based on the newspaper articles, and a book, by Los Angeles Times reporter Paul Lieberman, about a group of cops who were given extraordinary leeway to deal with the wiseguys, including Cohen, who were streaming into L.A. either as part of the dominant Jack Dragna gang or as free-lancers. But apart from that basic premise (and the names of a few of the mobsters and lawmen), the screenplay has very little to do with the actual record. Instead Beall has constructed a vigilante fantasy in which the squad, over what seems to be a few weeks rather than the years the actual bunch operated, succeeds in liberating their city from Cohen’s clutches and bringing him to justice.

It would be a tiresome business to catalogue Beall’s divergences from reality in constructing a story that’s a chain of shoot-outs, setbacks and triumphs. His model was certainly David Mamet’s 1987 update of the old Robert Stack TV series about Eliot Ness and his band of G-men pitted against the Capone gang in Chicago, with a dose of “L.A, Confidential” added to the mix. But his labored plotting exhibits none of Mamet’s skill in construction (or Brian Helgeland’s, who adapted James Ellroy’s book), and his dialogue is so riddled with noir cliché that one can only wonder whether it’s intended as a send-up of old gangster patois rather than a homage to the old flicks.

Fleischer is no less slavishly devoted to the “Untouchables” template. Despite lots of flash and visual bravado, however, he only proves that he’s no Brian De Palma–though not for lack of trying. He apes the older man’s style so insistently—in the scene portraying the (totally unhistorical) killing of one of the team member, meant to recall Sean Connery’s demise in the earlier picture, for example, or in the big final confrontation in the lobby of the Park Plaza Hotel, an attempt to do De Palma’s Union Station stairway sequence one better. But the comparisons are devastating. The last-act shootout, for instance, with its explosion of Christmas ornaments, is a chaotic jumble beside the earlier film’s scrupulously choreographed, balletic movement—though it’s not quite the incoherent mess that the director, cinematographer Dion Beebe and editors Alan Baumgarten and James Herbert make of a sequence early on in which the heroes attack one of Cohen’’ drug shipments in a frantic care chase.

As to the performances, they have more to do with posturing than acting. As John O’Mara, the bulldog leader of the squad, jut-jawed Brolin is so emotionally impassive that he actually rivals the wooden quality Robert Stack brought to the original TV Ness. (And the effort to soften him up by providing him with a concerned pregnant wife who’s threatened by the mob—a role better played by Mireille Enos than it deserves—doesn’t work.) He’s partnered with Ryan Gosling as Jerry Wooters, a guy as smooth and pragmatic as Brolin’s O’Mara is bluff and straight-arrow. Gosling apparently took the part to provide a respite from his customarily demanding roles. He glides through it nonchalantly, bringing little besides a slightly bemused expression. It’s hard, though, to see how anyone could have taken seriously a lachrymose scene in which Wooter’s persuaded to join the squad as a result of the death of a shoeshine boy in a gangland shooting. On the plus side, Gosling wears his period wardrobe well (as do all the cast, really), and he seems really to enjoy flicking his cigarette lighter on—something that happens so often it becomes a tiresome visual motif. And, of course, he gets to play scenes with lovely Emma Stone, doing her best imitation of a 1940s vamp as Grace Faraday, Cohen’s squeezes who begins an unwise romantic triangle with studly Wooters. It’s a ridiculous plot invention, of course, but no worse than most of what happens in the movie.

The rest of the squad is made up of good actors in hokey roles—Robert Patrick as a literal cowboy, Giovanni Ribisi as the nerdy but committed bugging whiz, Anthony Mackie as the black cop concerned about drugs in his neighborhood, and Michael Pena as the baby-faced Hispanic. Nick Nolte is hardly baby-faced as the chief who sets the squad in motion, but he’s no less a stock figure. And as Dragna, Jon Polito continues to play essentially the same character he’s been doing since “Miller’s Crossing.”

Then there’s Sean Penn. He plays Cohen—who was by all accounts a shrewd fellow who eventually, like Capone, went to prison for tax evasion (not murder, as here)—as a snarling animal with a propensity for exterminating any underling who makes a blunder in the most gruesome fashion (a tactic, one assumes, unlikely to engender much loyalty). Scrunching up his face in perpetual anger and contempt, Penn’s interesting to watch for a while, but by the close the performance has become rather tiresomely one-note. And unlike Robert De Niro’s Al Capone in “The Untouchables,” there’s an awful lot of it, including an absurd fistfight with Brolin’s O’Mara at the close. (Yes, the cop puts aside his gun to take on the villain—an erstwhile prizefighter—mano-a-mano. You didn’t expect Beall and Fleischer to bypass the ultimate cliché, would you?))

Technical credits are rich across the board, though Maher Ahmad’s production design, art directors Austin Gorg and Timothy D. O’Brien, set decorator Gene Serdena and costume designer Mary Zophres aren’t concerned with creating a realistic period look as much as a Hollywood dream of it. Nor—despite a few nods toward the issue raised by Ribisi’s character—is “Gangster Squad” at all interested in addressing the really intriguing issue raised by the story: do lawmen become indistinguishable from lawbreakers when they adopt their methods to bring them down? No “Bad Lieutenant” qualms here, just good old “Walking Tall” ass-kicking.

“Gangster Squad” was, of course, supposed to be released last year, but was delayed (and partially reshot) after the Aurora shooting. The original trailer—shown at the initial screenings of “The Dark Knight Rises,” ironically—featured a scene in which gunmen fired from behind a movie screen into a crowded theatre. That sequence is nowhere to be found in the final film, but it still will probably be what this movie will be remembered for, unlike “The Untouchables” and “L.A. Confidential,” which have lasted because of their quality. (One shouldn’t be too surprised if the cut scene eventually shows up on the Blu-ray, either) This jejune, testosterone-driven exercise in vigilantism won’t join those modern classics, but will doubtlessly go the way of another De Palma picture also loosely based on California crime history—2006’s opulent misfire “The Black Dahlia”—in the cinematic dustbin.

TEXAS CHAINSAW 3D

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After innumerable remakes, sequels, prequels and just plain ripoffs, “Texas Chainsaw 3D” returns to the story of Leatherface by pretending that none of them ever happened and jumping off from the ending of Tobe Hooper’s 1974 original. It also offers a story that’s far more developed than most slasher fare. But the result is a picture unlikely to satisfy either fans who feed on the yucky, in-your-face blood-and-guts overkill of the slice-and-dice genre, or the more discerning filmgoers who saw a subversive social commentary in the original.

After a prologue that shows the Sawyer family—presumably including chainsaw-wielding Leatherface, aka Jed (Dan Yeager)—wiped out by a mob that torches their house and sprays it liberally with bullets, we learn that an infant had been rescued from the melee and raised by a white-trash couple that quickly leaves the little town of Newt, Texas (which, given that the sheriff’s cars identify them as belonging to Fannin County, must be somewhere near Bonham).

A couple of decades later the baby has grown into a babe—Kristin Miller (Alexandra Daddario), who’s living with handsome dude Ryan (Tremaine “Trey Songz” Neverson) and is shocked to learn she’s adopted when a letter arrives informing her that her grandmother has died, leaving her the heir to the family estate. Soon she, her boyfriend and another couple, Nikki and Ryan (Tania Raymonde and Keram Malicki-Sanchez) are off to New Orleans in their van, planning to stop briefly at Newt to check on the house. Along the way they pick up charming hitchhiker Darryl (Shaun Sipos). Of course, the stay is longer than they expect—or, for most of them, shorter in terms of enjoying the place. Because it turns out that grandma’s house isn’t totally unoccupied, and its resident doesn’t take kindly to unwelcome visitors (something that Heather could have learned immediately had she bothered to read the letter the deceased old lady left for her).

What follows, of course, is a series of killings, though to be honest, until a big splurge in the final reel, director John Luessenhop mostly eschews the orgy of splatter effects that have become obligatory in this genre since the torture-porn of the “Saw” and “Hostel” franchises. (Heck, the movie is so decorous early on that after a street-level establishing shot of a dead armadillo on the pavement, it doesn’t show the beast being squashed by the tires of the passing van, but has them carefully swerve by the critter. And a scene in which Leatherface chases a potential victim into a crowded carnival is played more for laughs than shocks.) Luessenhop also thankfully forgoes the jerky, hyperactive camera style so commonplace in these kinds of flicks nowadays; together with cinematographer Anastas Michos he opts for steady, well-composed widescreen images, and even holds the obvious 3D moments to a minimum, thrusting blades into our eyes only occasionally.

All of that will probably disappoint those looking for more gore, who may also think that the movie is overloaded with plot. Not since Richard Franklin’s “Psycho II” (1983) has a script tried to follow some logic (garbled and riddled with holes though it might be) in continuing the story of an iconic madman in what amounts to an attempt to rehabilitate him. (One of Leatherface’s actions involving a grave even calls Norman Bates’ mother fixation to mind.) You have to give scripters Adam Marcus, Debra Sullivan and Kirsten Elms credit for doing something different from standard slasher fare in concocting a story that wants to make Leatherface, of all people, a sympathetic—even heroic—figure. But it’s a stretch to try to make that jibe with the portrait Hooper drew of him nearly four decades ago, and no message about family ties can wipe away all the blood that’s been spilled over the years.

While the new “Chainsaw” may be superior to most such fare in writing and direction, moreover, the acting remains pretty poor. Daddario’s main positive attribute is a well-toned midriff, which costume designer Mary McLeod assures is visible pretty consistently, and Raymonde does her slutty routine adequately. The guys are blander, with rapper Neverson showing off a buff physique but not much more, though Sipos exudes a raffish charisma. Paul Rae overdoes the Texas bit as Newt’s on-the-make mayor with a guilty secret, while Scott Eastwood is a handsome cipher as an ostensibly helpful young cop.

In sum “Texas Chainsaw 3D” isn’t as bad as you’d expect—it’s certainly a step up from previous 3D horror remakes like the “Piranha” flicks or “My Bloody Valentine”—but it’s further evidence that the kindest cut would be to leave these old movies alone.