Better luck with zombies

Published: Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013 1:15 a.m. CDT
Caption
(AP)
This film image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows (from left) Giovanni Ribisi as Officer Conwell Keeler, Josh Brolin as Sgt. John O'Mara, Ryan Gosling as Sgt. Jerry Wooters, Anthony Mackie as Officer Coleman Harris, Michael Pena as Officer Navidad Ramirez and Robert Patrick as Officer Max Kennard in “Gangster Squad."
Caption
(AP)
This film image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Emma Stone as Grace Faraday in “Gangster Squad."

Director Ruben Fleischer breathed new life into the zombie genre by infusing comedy into his weird and quirky “Zombieland.” He successfully fused the odd mix of contradicting elements of horror and hilarity.

He’s not so successful with a similar attempt to blend genres in “Gangster Squad.” His decision to take a modern approach to a 1940s-style gangster story gives the film a jumbled feel. The modern touches seem out of place, while the mob story lacks energy and tension.

There are some very good elements in this tale based loosely on the real story of the police officers who took a stand against organized crime in Los Angeles during the late 1940s. The team worked off the books and without any regard to the law. Anything was acceptable as long as the mob didn’t get a foothold in Southern California.

Fleischer shot the movie with a wink and a nod to the gangster films of the 1930s and 1940s. The good guys – particularly Josh Brolin as squad leader Sgt. John O’Mara – are a hard-nosed group. Brolin even seems to channel the quiet cool of Humphrey Bogart as he guides his men through the no-rules war on crime.

Even the film’s central bad guy, mobster Mickey Cohen, played by Sean Penn, looks like a refugee from a James Cagney movie with his evil stares and growling voice. The film’s at its best when Brolin and Penn are on the screen together.

The actors are given a beautiful backdrop as Fleischer makes ‘40s Los Angeles look like a magical place, from its high-priced night clubs to the mysterious back alleys. The director opted for a more vibrant filming style rather than the dark, glooming film noir look of the gangster-movie era. In this case, the visual approach is better because it gives a more mystical look to the movie.

Then there are the problems.

Fleischer has tried to put a spin on the classic gangster story with modern dialogue and touches of humor. This artistic juxtaposition is a distraction. The characters come across more like a bunch of 21st century buddies going to a gangster theme party than as a crew trying to keep Los Angeles safe.

This is particularly jarring with Ryan Gosling, whose Sgt. Jerry Wooters is too cool for any room. Everything he says is a quip or witty banter. He ends up about two jokes short of becoming little more than the comic relief for the movie.

And his scenes with Emma Stone – as the beauty who willingly shares her love with mobster or cop – don’t have the crisp dialogue of the ‘40s, where sexuality was discussed in double and triple entendre. There’s no romance here. It’s just another reminder that Fleischer’s modern touch doesn’t completely work.

This film is not a total miss, but it certainly isn’t the direct hit that “Zombieland” was.

GANGSTER SQUAD

Grade: C-plus

Rated R for language, violence. Stars Josh Brolin, Sean Penn, Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, Giovanni Ribisi. Directed by Ruben Fleischer. Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes.

Playing locally: At the Sauk Valley 8 in Sterling starting Friday. Friday showtimes: 4:20 p.m., 7 p.m., 9:40 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday showtimes: 1:20 p.m., 4:20 p.m., 7 p.m., 9:40 p.m.

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