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‘Gangster Squad’

by Kaori Shoji

You know the drill,” says L.A. gang lord Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) to his henchmen, and they immediately pick up actual drills and get to work on their victims. The screen gets sprayed with enough blood to relieve a drought. So if Mickey Cohen says “Hammer it out,” are those henchmen going to get hammers and start bludgeoning?

It’s a question worth pondering in “Gangster Squad,”an ultraviolent noir that often feels more like noir on crack. Excess is this movie’s best friend, and it works. Directed by Ruben Fleischer (“Zombieland”), the story is based on a real-life episode in Los Angeles’ illustrious crime history. In 1949, the city is under siege of the ruthless and all-powerful aforementioned Cohen. No one can touch him, least of all the LAPD, since many of the cops are on Cohen’s payroll; he has judges and Hollywood bigwigs in his pocket too. As the Godfather of the West Coast, Mickey Cohen is looking to gobble up Chicago and move east. He seems unstoppable.

But one man stands in the way: Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), a maverick in the police force devoting his career to taking Cohen down. Brolin has pretty much perfected the poker-faced tough dude on the right side of the law (see “Men in Black 3″ for evidence), and though the role doesn’t allow for much scope or versatility, it sure serves him in “Gangster Squad.”

Without saying much or altering his expression, O’Mara goes about assembling a five-man posse that carries no badges, operates independently and matches Cohen on the destructive barbarism. On this A-Team is O’Mara’s buddy Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), a disillusioned cop and World War II vet who’s fed up with killing people for a living.

But when Wooters falls for Cohen’s girlfriend-cum-”etiquette coach” Grace Faraday (Emma Stone, who comes off here like a dark-haired Veronica Lake) and sees a friend killed by one of Cohen’s thugs, he changes his mind. Wooters decides to give the law — and love — one last chance, though he plays it cool and pretends to court Grace solely to get her into bed. Grace isn’t fooled, since she’s been around Cohen long enough to know the difference between an inherently nice man and a megaton scumbag.

This is an engine souped up on testosterone, and at times the macho density level is so high you may need an axe to hack your way through. (Join the party, since everyone seems to carry at least one blunt or sharp-edged weapon at all times.)

And then you may recall a similar story called “Mulholland Falls” from 1996 and directed by Lee Tamahori. That too was about an elite group of L.A. cops who left their badges on their desks to fight dirty against organized crime. Nick Nolte appears in both, which is a nice touch — back in the 1990s he was on the squad to squelch the mob king; in “Gangster Squad” he’s the police chief who comes up with the idea to wage guerilla warfare.

One of the best things “Gangster Squad” has going for it is its cast — every one of the guys (and the girl) is a perfect fit. The standout is Penn, who takes bullying to next-level horridness. Prepare to weep for mercy.