There's something off about "Gangster Squad" even before the title hits the screen. Los Angeles crime boss Mickey Cohen (a cartoonish Sean Penn) shows off his skills from his days as a prize fighter under a high contrast, heavily stylized lighting that emphasizes his strained veins. As he pummels a punching bag with ferocious intensity, the voiceover of Sgt. John O'Mara (Josh Brolin), the officer eventually tasked with taking Cohen down, explains the criminal's menacing grip on 1940's-era Los Angeles as if the cop were narrating a trailer for the real deal. From the very start, the movie presents itself as a cheap, over-stylized imitation of better crime sagas from several eras, landing somewhere between "Public Enemy" and "L.A. Confidential" without the same gravitas or consistency.
There's a strange tension here between director and material, given that Ruben Fleisher's two previous efforts, the enjoyable "Zombieland" and "30 Minutes or Less," were outright comedies. There's nothing particularly funny about "Gangster Squad," but a penchant for camp and eagerness to play around with atmosphere constantly strains to break through and falls short. While technically based on a true story, the very premise of LAPD officers covertly assigned to act as criminals themselves in an ongoing attempt to destroy Cohen's illegal dealings, encourages a kind of free-for-all pulpy spirit visible in the archetypes populating this cast. Along with O'Mara, a troubled family man and war vet constantly assuring his worrisome wife (Mireille Enos) that he's almost done with the beat, there's the naturally suave philanderer Sgt. Jerry Wooters, played by Ryan Gosling on autopilot, whose playful attitude makes him a natural wild card to offset O'Mara's calculated approach.
The rest of the team is mostly comprised of background figures bearing guns and trenchcoats. The only other substantial characters are the cops' scowling chief (Nick Nolte, also on autopilot) and a love interest for Wooters, the helpless Grace Faraday (Emma Stone, whose romance with Gosling weirdly echoes their onscreen romance in last year's "Crazy. Stupid. Love."). Fleisher has the referential feel of a Tarantino movie without the same enthusiasm for the material.
By design, "Gangster Squad" trades quality for genre allegiance at the cost of originality; it only stands out for trumpeting attitude through various filters that jazz up the action. This is by design; according to a recent article in The New York Times, "Gangster Squad" was conceived as "an experiment in next-wave noir" in the tradition of the newly resurrected "Sherlock Holmes" franchise. Both properties aim to rejuvenate the seemingly antiquated periods in which they take place with dazzling modern techniques.
For a Hollywood product, this attempt to capitalize on a seemingly impeccable form of genre reinvention might feel fresh. However, movies produced for far less and operating under fewer constraints routinely pay homage to filmic traditions with heightened creativity. The attempt by "Gangster Squad" to enliven the noir mold rings false not because its intentions are obvious but because the experience of such lightweight intentions feel joyless. By comparison, Don Coscarelli's noir-fantasy-comedy-whatsit "John Dies at the End," which came out this month on VOD ahead of next week's theatrical release, nimbly channels a number of familiar ingredients with a great sense of fun.
Blending the spirit of "Ghostbusters" with "Naked Lunch," the "Phantasm" director's adaptation of Jason Pargin's novel follows David (Chase Williamson), a quasi-psychic sort empowered by an otherworldly black drug called "the sauce." Along with his pal John (Rob Mayes), the two spend their days investigating paranormal activities (a gig that makes them look like kids in costumes playing around, like much of the movie). As David recalls how he came upon the sauce to a skeptical journalist (Paul Giamatti), the movie flashes back to the most surreal cascade of events young American movie stars have endured since Gregg Araki's "Kaboom!," the last movie to indulge in a trippy, free-for-all adventure with a pure commitment to its own internal logic. In "John Dies at the End," expectations are constantly abandoned for pure silliness taken at face value.
After accidentally taking a hit from the black stuff, David starts to hallucinate about creatures from another world attacking him while he's driving; in jail, he's told that his pal John has died from an overdose, then receives a call from the deceased man in another state of being. Psychically connected, the two join forces to face down a threat of…something. This describes about a third of the movie, which eventually involves talking dogs, intergenerational battles and a ginormous alien spider crab. Recut since its original Sundance premiere, "John Dies at the End" is a ludicrous mess, but also a wild ride.
The whole thing might sound too farcical for comparison to "Gangster Squad," but Fleisher's movie features the same lopsided approach with less willingness to embrace it. Instead, we get a by-the-numbers attempt at the same foreboding atmosphere that's so enjoyably charged in "John Dies at the End," an alternately witty and ominous romp that repeatedly doubles back on each new development (and there are so, so many) just for the hell of it. Both movies revolve around a hero facing impossible odds who provides the sly voiceover narration. But "John Dies at the End" creates the impression of journeying into a peculiar universe of subjectivity in which anything goes — an enticing form of unhindered movie magic that "Gangster Squad" sorely lacks.
"Gangster Squad": C-
"John Dies at the End": B+
HOW WILL THEY PLAY? Originally slated for release last year, "Gangster Squad" was pushed to January after some of its scenes of gun violence were deemed too similar to the Aurora shooting; since then, the Newton massacre has made that decision moot, which might make it a tough proposition for some people. While it may top a weak January box office, it seems unlikely to maintain much traction in the coming weeks. It opens nationwide on Friday.
"John Dies at the End" is currently available through Magnet on VOD, where it belongs and should perform well due to its intriguing premise and genre hooks. It may stand a chance at mildly respectable theatrical returns for the same reason, but will only get a limited release on January 25.