'Gangster Squad' fails to impress

January 15, 2013 

Finding directors you like is a lot like dating.

You know, like when you go to Target, and there are all these cute directors pushing those red carts around, and you spend 20 minutes checking out pepper mills trying to work up the courage to ask out the director reminds you just a little of early Scorsese. That sort of thing.

But also, there are some directors you just seem to get along with right away. You see one of their movies and it clicks. It speaks to you. And then you see the rest of their movies and love them all, because each one has that little thing that makes your movie-heart go pitter-patter, even the ones nobody else likes. This is how I am for Christopher Nolan. Roland Emmerich, too, although that’s more of an abusive relationship. But there’s a flip side to that coin, too. The directors who just grate your nerves. I’ve seen all three of Ruben Fleischer’s feature films, and I can confidently declare that he is not my type.

In 1949, violent mob boss Sean Penn is on the brink of taking over Los Angeles. Penn’s too powerful to be taken down through legal means, so button-down cop Josh Brolin is assigned a different task: put together a crack squad of cops, and destroy Penn’s operations through any means necessary.

But Penn is on the verge of a breakthrough. Once he gets his latest venture up and running, the money will come in so fast he’ll be expanding faster than Brolin can tear him down.

There is much that sounds great about “Gangster Squad.” Off-the-grid cops waging guerrilla war against a ruthless crime boss. Noir-era L.A. Fedoras for miles. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone looking so gorgeous the rest of us might as well pack it in to become monks and nuns. It’s going to take some elbow grease to build a monastery big enough to hold all 7 billion of us, but just look at them. We don’t really have a choice here.

The problem is that it’s ridiculous. In the very first scene, Penn executes one of his enemies by tying the man between two cars, then ordering his men to “Let ‘er rip.” Right after that, Brolin rescues a woman from forced prostitution by punching out half the gangsters in town, then quips, “Welcome to Los Angeles, ma’am.”

It’s a thin line between cool and dumb, and much of your opinion of “Gangster Squad” is going to depend on how you reacted to director Ruben Fleischer’s earlier movies (”Zombieland,” “30 Minutes or Less”). If you liked them, well, maybe you should just ignore everything else I have to say. Joke’s on you! I get paid either way!

But with all these outsized characters doing battle with LA’s first supervillain, I felt like I was watching “LA Confidential” meets “The Dark Knight.” Which sounds incredible. That movie should be so good that you ask it to move in with you after the second date and it gets weirded out and stops returning your calls. Instead, it’s often laughable, with a generic and predictable storyline filled in by secondary characters who seem designed by committee to be rad.

On the plus side, some of the dialogue is pretty snappy, and the costumes are very nice. And it moves along smoothly enough that it’s possible to feel like you’re watching something that’s not such a bad way to pass the time.

But then Fleischer pulls out another piece of comic book craziness and you start wondering what Brolin would look like in a cape and a unitard. I mean, assuming you don’t already think about that all the time. “Gangster Squad” could have been mindlessly entertaining if it weren’t trying so damn hard to be cool.

Grade: C

* Contact Ed Robertson at edwrobertson@gmail.com. His fiction is available on Kindle, Nook, Kobo, and elsewhere.

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