Ruben Fleischer’s Gangster Squad, as everyone knows by now, was originally slated for release last fall, a release postponed due to the reshooting of a climactic sequence that rather unfortunately echoed the theater shooting in Aurora. That scene was replaced by a set piece in Chinatown, and when it comes up, the movie buckles a little under the weight. It’s an encroaching of reality, of the world outside the frame, that’s wildly unfair. Opening disclaimer aside, this is not a film “Inspired by a True Story”; it’s inspired by movies, by the way classic crime pictures look and feel and sound, which is then revved up and kicked out as pure flash. Those who are calling it shallow and cartoony and clichéd are missing the point. It is all of those things, purposefully — gleefully, even.
Is this even a question? Josh Brolin, who has never looked more appropriate for a role, is playing a by-the-books hero with the squarest of jaws, narrating in a style not so much borrowed from Jack Webb as shoplifted. His wife (Mireille Enos) explains to a colleague that “he is not much for abstract thinking” — he subscribes to black-and-white notions of honor and duty, and the picture follows suit. When he and the missus have a heartfelt discussion of the risks he’s taking and the danger it puts on their lives, Fleisher and screenwriter Will Beall play it straight, but not seriously — with tongue in cheek, but not with a wink, if you catch my drift. They know this scene is supposed to be there if you’re going to tell this story, and they include it, dutifully. But the dialogue within is barely more sophisticated than the word balloons in a comic strip, and that’s sort of fine.
Some have compared the picture (unfavorably, obviously) to L.A. Confidential, but the comparison is fundamentally silly; that was a movie that turned this world on its head, that reveled in the shades of grey, that made the simple complex and sophisticated. Gangster Squad is closer to Dick Tracy — from the unambiguous characterizations to the grotesque villain to the snazzy art and costume design. And like that film, this is one that looks designed; the sets are lived on, and the clothes aren’t lived in. It’s false — deliberately so. It’s a bunch of movie stars having a great time playing dress-up.
Approached and accepted on those terms, Gangster Squad is a gas, filled with crisp, tactile pleasures and the joy of performance. It’s a celebration of how well Brolin wears a fedora, how great Ryan Gosling looks in a suit that fits just so, and how beautifully he zings with Emma Stone, who plays dress-up better than anybody in the business (she evokes Jessica Rabbit levels of va-va-va-voomery). Fleisher’s camera lives for moments small (like the look on Stone’s face after Gosling steals a particularly surprising kiss) and big — it lovingly caresses every tommy gun flash, every exploding Molotov cocktail, and every pounding punch.
I’ve not mentioned much about the plot yet, and I’m not skipping much. It’s 1949, and Brolin’s hero cop is drafted by Los Angeles’ chief of police (Nick Nolte, thundering admirably) to put together an off-the-books squad dedicated to taking down Mickey Cohn (Sean Penn) and keeping the mob out of LA. He puts together the motley crew you’d expect: a smooth talker (Gosling) who’s romancing Cohn’s girl (Stone); a black cop (Anthony Mackie) from the meaner streets; a gunslinger (Robert Patrick) with a Latino sidekick (Michael Peña); and a technician and family man (Giovanni Ribisi).
As he was recruiting the last guy, I suddenly realized what we were seeing: a 21st century gloss on The Untouchables, with Brolin in the Costner role, Ribisi filling in for Charles Martin Smith, and the rest of the crew taking down a fabled Mafiosi played by a scenery-chewing Oscar winner. Like that film, Gangster Squad’s villain mostly functions as a bellowing abstract, a cipher; both run on a bit too long, and occasionally indulge a taste for brutality that runs counter to their otherwise cartoony nature. And hey look, I’m not the only one making that comparison; Roger Ebert makes the some point, pitying poor Gangster Squad for not having “the benefit of a David Mamet screenplay.” Funny, his Untouchables review is barely more favorable than Gangster’s, and in it, he slams Mamet’s screenplay, which “could have been by anybody.” But I digress.
Gangster Squad is not a great movie — it is not a Chinatown, or an L.A. Confidential, or even, if we’re being completely honest about it, an Untouchables. What it is is a lot of fun. The cars glisten, the stars shine, and the dialogue, while simple, has got a nice zip to it. Its makers clearly spent some time in the company of Cagney and Robinson and Muni and the like, and have created a film that replicates both the iconography of those films, and the corn of them. When Brolin and the boys bust up a bookmaking joint above a nightclub, Fleisher eagerly intercuts their destruction with Carmen Miranda (Yvette Tucker), doing a snazzy number on the stage downstairs. He delights in the juxtaposition, and so do we. As Carmen would say, boom chicka boom chicka boom boom boom.
Gangster Squad is out today in wide release. Also out today in limited release is Quartet, the directorial debut of Dustin Hoffman, which gives us a wonderfully wily Billy Connolly performance, the expected delights of Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, and Pauline Collins, and a deeply problematic third act that’s something like a sports movie that ends in the locker room, pre-game. And our favorite film of 2012, Zero Dark Thirty, finally goes wide today, after more than a month of sight unseen criticism. We’d like to think that, now that it’s finally out there, it will get the intellectual consideration it deserves. But we sorta doubt it.