Friday, January 18, 2013

Film Review: Ruben Fleischer's Gangster Squad

When a director makes his debut with a film that is so fun and rompy, so out-of-the-box insane, so full of giddy surprises and cheeky attitude, you cannot help but look forward to what comes next.  Well, the director in question is Ruben Fleischer, and the debut film is 2009's acerbic and witty Zombieland.  Two years later, Fleischer made his followup.  It was the rather lackluster, but still quite witty 30 Minutes or Less.  Sure, it did not live up to the hype of being the sophomore work of the guy who made Zombieland, but it was, by no means, a failure.  Perhaps just a misstep.  The sophomore jinx maybe.   Something that, in theory, could be remedied by the director's third film, the long anticipated and ultimately delayed Gangster Squad.  Of course, whenever the studio decides to push back the original release date from September of 2012, and possible Oscar consideration, to the cinematic no man's land of January 2013, you know something is off.  The thing that is off in this case, is the movie itself.  Almost totally lacking the wryness of his first film, and not even able to live up to his second, Fleischer's third film makes one wonder if Zombieland wasn't just a fluke after all.

Fleischer's third film is set in an appropriately noirish late forties L.A. - everything shimmers, but always with a dark foreboding - and stars Josh Brolin as Sergeant John O'Mara, lovingly and quaintly called Sarge by his buddies, a super stud cop-cum-alter boy, and apparently one of the few honest cops in the LAPD of the time; Ryan Gosling as Sergeant Jerry Wooters, a cocky fellow officer with no respect for authority, with the face of a choir boy gone wrong and the proverbial heart of gold; and Sean Penn as Mickey Cohen, the local mob boss, who has worked his way up from a Joe Palookaville youth to being the prospective next Al Capone or, since we are in Hollywood here, the next Tony Camonte.  Fine premise indeed.  Toss in Fleischer's Zombieland hottie, Emma Stone, as Mickey's moll, and Jerry's love interest (yeah, that's a good idea kid), and Nick Nolte as the stereotypically hard-as-nails police chief, and you have the makings of a damn fine movie.  A damn fine movie indeed.  The only real problem is finding that damn fine movie, because I am not sure where that prospective damn fine movie got to.  It definitely was not up on the screen that I happened to be watching. 

Slickly made - the film does look quite good, and I suppose that is at least something - but rather staid in its storyline.  Sort of a cookie-cutter type manual for how-to-make a period gangster film.  Which is a shame, since Zombieland (and we keep going back to that one, don't we?) was about as far from a cookie-cutter type manual for how-to-make a zombie film, as could be.  I think Fleischer, working more with the studio than he did in his more independently-minded debut, which is always a bitch, not-so-secretly wanted his film to be L.A. Confidential, and it most certainly is not that.  Brolin is one note, Gosling is too wishy-washy and Stone is really nothing more than a pretty face and a hot body in a slinky red dress - and this too is a shame, since all three are more than capable of taking on these roles.  The only real stand out in the crowd is Penn's mob boss.  Sure, it is as stereotypical as stereotypical can get - and to be honest, I think, for the sake of comedy, this is done purposefully - but Penn pulls it off with his usual panache.  Otherwise though, the film just simply falls flat.  Just like last year's Lawless and Killing Them Softly, two disappointing, albeit to varying degrees, films from directors who have done good enough work in the past to warrant, perhaps inevitably so, a bit too much giddy anticipation.  But at least those films had enough going for them that they were not total wastes of times.  I am not sure I can say as much for Gangster Squad.

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