The period L.A. crime drama Gangster Squad — starring Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn and Emma Stone — is best known for its poor timing. Following the movie theater mass shootings in Aurora, Colorado in July 2012, the release date for Gangster Squad was bumped. The film's centerpiece action sequence depicted, yes, a mass shooting in a movie theater.
The cast reassembled in August for additional shooting and the scene was replaced for the film's rescheduled opening in January, 2013. But critics didn't like it, audiences didn't notice it, the marketing was halfhearted and picture quickly sank from view.
New to DVD, Blu-ray and digital this week. Gangster Squad is hoping for a second chance on home video. It's not a great film, but it's not bad and it has a nice feel for the genre delights of tough guys and Tommy guns.
The premise — kinda-sorta based on a true story — is made-for-Hollywood material: After World War II, vicious gangster Mickey Cohen (Penn) is king of the Los Angeles criminal underworld. Cohen has so terrified the citizenry that one will inform or testify against him. And he's bought off all the important cops and judges, so no one will prosecute him in the first place.
L.A. police chief Bill Parker (Nick Nolte) decides there's only one way to beat Cohen. He assembles an off-the-books team of hardcase cops — the Gangster Squad — to wage guerrilla war against Cohen's syndicate. Their mission, should they choose to accept it: Smash Cohen's rackets, burn down his operations and dispose of his goons by any means necessary. The team accepts, with enthusiasm.
Brolin plays Sgt. John O'Mara, square-jawed WWII veteran and leader of the team. He's sufficiently heroic, but less interesting than those around him. O'Mara's pregnant wife Connie (Mireille Enos) proves to be just as tough and twice as smart as John, with a flair for crimefighting strategy. Ryan Gosling plays a cynical cop who joins the team and even dares to steal the heart of Cohen's moll, played by a sultry Emma Stone.
Gangster Squad never quite clicks, though. Director Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland) aims for a stylized approach in the dialogue and staging that doesn't sit well with all the graphic violence. Fleischer states his intentions in an opening scene where Cohen dismembers a rival gangster under the iconic "Hollywoodland" sign. This kind of tone is hard to pull off — ask Tarantino — and Fleischer and his team flirt with open parody throughout. You're never sure how seriously to take any of it, because the filmmakers aren't sure themselves.
So you're left with the film's unambiguous delights: The pretty period art design and the giddy performances from Gosling, Enos, Stone and especially Sean Penn as the psychotic Cohen. Watch Penn's choices throughout, especially in the final scenes. He knows what his role is in a movie like this, and how to deliver.
The DVD/Blu-ray retail combo adds some worthwhile extras on the movie's historical context, plus deleted scenes and a director's commentary track.
Also New This Week:
History-minded baseball fans might want to check out director Aviva Kempner’s Peabody Award-winning documentary The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, which profiles the great Detroit Tigers sluggers and America's first Jewish baseball superstar.
Headliners and co-writers Matt Damon and John Krasinski take on the contentious issue of natural gas fracking in Promised Land.
Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor in the wrenching tsunami drama The Impossible.
Marlon Wayans, Nick Swardson and Cedric the Entertainer in the found-footage horror spoof A Haunted House.
Sam Neill, Laura Dern and several dozen lethal dinosaurs in the 3D reissue of Jurassic Park, which is still playing in some theaters. That was fast.
Plus: Any Day Now, The Great Gatsby (1974), K-11, Mr. Selfridge, Pawn, Wuthering Heights (2011) and — for you old-school James Garner fans — Maverick: The Complete Second Season.