Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Cinema File #102: "Gangster Squad" Review

Maybe I'm just still reeling from the whole Master debacle, and my standards for enjoying a movie have sunk to the point where just not being boring is enough, but I have to say that all things considered, I didn't hate Gangster Squad nearly as much as I thought I would. The prospect of a movie like this centered around hard bitten crime fighters and over the top criminals in the 1940's with the film noir style all but replaced with a modern action popcorn sensibility seems at best counter-intuitive, if not completely absurd, but honestly, I'm not a big enough fan of the genre conventions this movie does wrong to really be all that mad about their misuse. Removing the film from its context, forgetting about the much more stylish and better executed movies of its kind and just accepting it for what it is, Gangster Squad is just okay, which considering some of the movies I've seen recently, isn't something I can easily dismiss.

Gangster Squad is the story of a group of honest cops in 1940's LA who form a clandestine vigilante squad to take down mobster Mickey Cohen and save their city from his corrupting influence. The biggest problem with this movie is that all of the immediate parallels for it are so much better. When you think of this kind of story, you think of The Untouchables, or LA Confidential, or any number of classic films that have taken on this subject matter with much more thought and finesse. To say that this new film by a director mostly known for comedies (including the excellent Zombieland) is not as good as what's come before is obvious, but its also a bit unfair, as I don't think it was ever trying to be. You can't hold every movie of a particular genre to the standard of its greatest examples, and I think a lot of the poor reception this film has received comes from that natural impulse, if only because those greater examples are so indelible when we think of any movie with this setting.

I will say that outside of Josh Brolin, Robert Patrick, and maybe Giovanni Ribisi, the cast is a bit of a let down. Outside of Drive, I've never liked Ryan Gosling, and he seems to be going out of his way here to make his performance not fit the tone of the film. I never buy his soft spoken playboy turned bad ass thing even a little bit, and he just comes off as wimpy, which in a movie like this makes me lose interest every time he's on screen. The same goes for Emma Stone, who I've warmed to a bit lately post-Amazing Spiderman, but who simply does not work as a femme fatale, though I'd say that has as much to do with how poorly the character is conceived than the way she plays her. I've always wanted to like Sean Penn, but there's just something about him that I've never been able to get into, and while I can't say he's particularly bad, he comes off as a little too cartoonish (the make up doesn't help), and I would have preferred something a little more toned down.

That all being said, the action is pretty solid, the pacing is even and never slows down once it gets going, and for the most part I generally enjoyed the interplay between our titular squad. Some of them are clearly just there for filler, never given much time to establish themselves as interesting characters apart from the group, but there were enough little moments that I can't develop any particular ire for any of it. I quite enjoyed Patrick's goofy old codger and I've always had a soft spot for Ribisi, and as always Josh Brolin is a good lead regardless of the quality of the rest of the film. He's mostly there to be grim faced and resolute, but then the entire movie seems to make a point of never demanding too much, either of its cast or its audience. If there's one compliment I can give to the film, which may sound like faint praise but in the wake of The Master is actually something important to me, its that Gangster Squad is never a chore to sit through.

Its not the best gangster movie you've ever seen, but its certainly not the worst either, and overall, I think its probably just barely worth a watch. Maybe not something you rush out to see, but a solid rental. I can't help but view this movie in light of The Last Stand, which if not for Arnold would have almost certainly elicited a similar meh reaction to its cliche ridden structure. Since they already re-shot the movie once, I say why not take another crack at it, throw in some Schwarzenegger, and see if we can't make it a masterpiece. 

Okay, maybe not.
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