So far, "Gangster Squad," Warner Bros.' flashy new throwback to the studio's series of successful gangster movies, has been more noted for something that didn't even make it into the final film. To explain: early trailers showcased a sequence where characters (it's unclear if it was the good guys or the bad guys) blast through a movie screen, firing into the crowd. While this is undeniably a cool idea, it also hit tragically close to home after the tragedy in Aurora, Co., when a madman opened fire on a peaceful theater before a screening of "The Dark Knight Rises" (another Warner Bros. movie).
The film was unceremoniously shelved, its release date shifting from a pre-Oscar September slot to an anonymous weekend in January, and the sequence was removed (a replacement scene was shot and reincorporated into the film). So… now that we're finally seeing "Gangster Squad," is it still going to be a hot-button movie (especially since one gun-related tragedy has sadly been swapped for another, with the shooting at Sandy Hook) or has the media firestorm sufficiently cooled? And, more importantly, is the film really worth watching?
PRO: It's Really Cool
There are things about "Gangster Squad" that are incredibly dopey, to the point that we were watching several prominent critics become visibly exasperated. But about halfway through the movie, I kind of gave up trying to analyze it in any formal context and just enjoyed the ride. It's a bunch of handsome dudes, wearing amazing suits, firing guns at people. There's very little about that sentence that is anything but pleasurable, and much of "Gangster Squad" plays like a two-fisted pulp novel, full of rock'em-sock'em violence and the kind of acting that can charitably be described as "hammy" (more on that in a minute). The film was directed by Ruben Fleischer, who previously helmed "Zombieland" and "30 Minutes or Less," and shoots the film, digitally, in a kind of haloed haze of nostalgia and vintage neon lights. It's remarkably beautiful, especially when he does neat things like slows down a gunfight that takes place across from a large Christmas display.
CON: It Might Be A Little Too Earnest For Its Own Good
In an early scene in "Gangster Squad," Ryan Gosling -- playing a boozing, gambling Los Angeles detective -- scans a room full of gangsters and crooked cops,and focuses on a beautiful redhead, her tumbling hair framing her angelic face (Emma Stone). "Who's the tomato?" he asks. This is about the level of sophistication, dialogue-wise, that you'll have to deal with in "Gangster Squad." The machine guns aren't the only things firing ratatat blasts; every character speaks in terse bursts of tough-guy dialogue seemingly ripped form the pages of whatever yellowed paperback detective novel was lying around at the time. For the most part, this works wonderfully. One of the undercurrents of the movie is about how these detectives all fought in the war and came home to a Los Angeles filled with just as much vice and villainy as what they dealt with overseas. As such, they're little more than ciphers, who believe in the good and godly in America, and that's about it. This two dimensionality, while lending itself to the piece's overall detective comic vibe, might be a little too simplistic for some. We live in a morally grey time, and audiences might want to see that reflected on the screen.
PRO: Sean Penn, Magnificent Ham
Sean Penn plays Mickey Cohen, the Jewish gangster who almost single-handedly ran organized crime in Los Angeles. His treachery is so severe and multifaceted that the gruff chief of police (Nick Nolte, even more snarly than ever) creates the so-called gangster squad, a brutal team of cops (played by Ryan Gosling, Josh Brolin, Michael Pena, Giovanni Rabisi, Anthony Mackie and, um, Robert Patrick), to go after Cohen directly. While the movie belongs to the titular squad, it's easily overrun by Penn's Cohen, who we watch box in slow motion as the movie begins, and who takes etiquette lessons from Emma Stone because he's trying to be "more sophisticated." At one point, disappointed with a lackey that had failed him, he hands the dude off to one of his lieutenants. "You know the drill," Penn growls, at which point the lieutenant takes out a drill and drills into the dude's skull. (You see, the drill was literal!) Penn is an actor we don't get to see enough of, and he absolutely relishes the part here, gleefully sailing over over-the-top and landing somewhere on the other side. He totally gets the tone and feel of the movie and has a blast.
CON: It's About As "Based On A True Story" as "Spider-Man" Is
There are two title cards at the beginning of "Gangster Squad" -- one says the movie's name and the other says, "Based on a True Story." The only problem is that the movie seems to have only a cursory connection to events that actually happened. Everything about "Gangster Squad" is heightened and exaggerated, at times resembling everything from a "Hardy Boys" novel to the super-glossy films of divisive post-millennial auteur Zach Snyder (or maybe a hyper-violent remake of "Dick Tracy"). It's also clearly Warner Bros. trying to revitalize its own classic gangster genre (made immortal by things like "Public Enemy"). The movie's super-heroics fit the story regardless of historical authenticity (and the film's screenwriter, Will Beall, was recently hired to write the "Justice League" movie), but if you're looking for something rooted in real life, Daniel Day-Lewis is probably still wearing a silly hat a few screens down.
PRO: The Ryan Gosling Charm Factory Continues Unabated
Ryan Gosling's mystifying accent (he was born in Canada but occasionally sounds like he grew up in the Bronx, something that he blames from watching too many Robert De Niro movies) continues to baffle, and here he's softened it from the low-octane grumble it was in "Drive” to an almost hushed breathiness. It kind of weirds you out for the first few minutes, but then you give up trying to be anything but hopelessly charmed. Gosling is a rocket-fueled charisma generator, able to safely power most major American cities. As the lovable rogue in a movie filled with them (hello, Robert Patrick!), he wears the suit better than anyone else and gets some of the movies best lines (hello, "tomato!"). Any movie that Gosling is in is instantly more enjoyable. More, please.