Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Return of Ryan Gosling

This is actually a flick I've been waiting quite a while to see. Gangster Squad was originally supposed to hit theaters in September, but met with controversy over the summer. See, the original trailer, which first aired back in May, featured a scene in which Los Angeles gangsters opened fire in a crowded movie theater in what was surely meant to be an ambush on the film's heroes. That's fine enough, but with the similar and tragic real-life Aurora, Colorado shootings, it wasn't exactly something they could include in the final cut. And so the trailer and the scene were dropped, the scene was relocated and re-shot, and in January we finally get to see Ruben Fleischer's noir cop drama, based on the crime reign of mobster Mickey Cohen.

In the late 1940's, Los Angeles is as corrupt as any city can get. Mafia boss Cohen (Sean Penn) rules ruthlessly, buying off the law and eliminating both those who oppose and fail him. When the chief of police Bill Parker (Nick Nolte) calls upon the likes of honest cops and WWII vets O'Mara (Josh Brolin) and Wooters (Ryan Gosling) to assemble an "off the books" squad to wage a guerrilla war against Cohen's operations, it's more an act of desperation as anything else. Cohen has such a stranglehold on the city that nobody else wants to even try to fight his criminal empire. O'Mara and his men have some initial success, but to truly end Cohen's reign, it might take more effort than six men are able to handle.

Be cool guys, be cool.
If you're like me, the words "Based on a true story" have little meaning in a Hollywood that doesn't hesitate to bend our outright twist the truth to benefit their narratives. Though several characters in the story - from Cohen to Parker to gangster Jack Dragna - are based on real-life counterparts, the film doesn't bother sticking to all but the basic truths about them. Even if I hadn't fact-checked a number of egregious falsehoods that the story presents, I still wouldn't have bought it; the action scenes - while mostly beautifully shot - feel too much like a video game, as heroes and villains alike fire endless bullets unless the lack of ammunition could be used as a quick plot device. This would have been welcome had this been a fantastical action piece a la The Avengers and not a gritty crime drama supposedly in the vein of LA Confidential. There are also major logic holes in the story, moments that make no sense in the sense of what we have followed, leading to confusion among the audience. Fleischer, who is better known for his comedies Zombieland and 30 Minutes or Less, is a bit out of his element here, opting to go for the classy visuals but not adding any real meat to the imaginative script.

Worse makeup than Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Looper.
Fleischer at least puts a competent cast in front of the camera, but he then wraps them around stock characters and so perfectly wastes their potential. Rising stars Anthony Mackie and Michael Pena are the Gangster Squad's requisite minority members. Robert Patrick is literally a cowboy, complete with duster and matching mustache. Giovanni Ribisi is the lone family man whose death is all but guaranteed. Nolte is the quintessential grizzled Police Chief. Ryan Gosling (returning after not appearing all of last year) and Emma Stone reunite for the first time since Crazy Stupid Love, and while they're hardly original as a smooth-talking Vice cop and a good bad-girl, respectively, they at least have the chemistry to make their on-screen romance work. The film ends up being owned by Brolin and Penn, though it's not easy. Brolin is a solid force, lacking in anything that makes him excellent or even charismatic, but maintaining his stoic leadership throughout his scenes. He's too used to performing dramas; Men In Black 3 perfectly exhibited his comedic abilities, and he'd be wise to pursue that vein. Penn meanwhile has to overcome horrible prosthetic makeup and a hammily-written caricature, but still manages to tap into the essence of the deeper character, brilliantly stealing more than his share of moments.

This one's for the ladies (and select gentlemen) in the house.
Still, despite Gangster Squad's liberal interpretation of history, quarrelsome script, boring title, uneven direction, dependence on style over substance, massive plot holes and wasted acting, I was found to be actually enjoying myself overall. Why? Fleischer keeps the story (as poor as it is) moving forward, and as cardboard cutouts go, the heroes were actually root-able to sufficient a degree. And in most cases, the director's manic action sequences are exciting enough if you keep expectations reasonable. It's not all that much of a movie, but at least for 2013 it's a step up from Texas Chainsaw 3D, and sits prettily at #1 for the year. Sure, I know Ryan Gosling fans were hoping for more from their hero after his star-turning 2010-11, but for that they may have to await the upcoming The Place Beyond the Pines or Only God Forgives, both slated for later this year. Gangster Squad is good for a bit of fun, but be sure to lower your expectations at the door.

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