Treated and Released: Gangster Squad (Jan. 7, 2013)

I feel as though sometimes I put too much stock into a movie’s release date, hence the very words you are reading. I infer what kind of a movie I’m going to see based on the premise, the actors, the director, the marketing...sure. All the usual stuff. But I also take note of when this movie is being given to me, because that’s arguably more strategic than the editing of a trailer these days. There are such things as counter-programming, awards-baiting, and holiday multipliers. So when I get a self-serious comic book superhero movie in March, I pause for a moment and reflect on why. When a cute, predictable romantic comedy gets slated during the blockbuster blitz between May and July, there’s a reason for that.

That brings us to Ruben Fleischer. A director who hit a triple on his first at-bat with 2009’s Zombieland, Fleischer has a knack for kinetic visuals and what industry people call “high-concept” projects (i.e., “what if the zombie apocalypse was treated like a large-scale playground?” or “what if a pizza delivery guy was forced to participate in a heist?”). For the 2012 blockbuster season, Fleischer had a project that was likely to be the dark horse with a late-in-the-game victory: amid all the flashy superheroes and alien invasions that summer, Labor Day weekend would see Fleischer bring his stylistic flair to zoot suits, fedoras, Tommy guns, and beautiful dangerous dames in a violent, whiz-bang pulp magazine vehicle.

That film, Gangster Squad, instead came out with a limp in early January of 2013 and was promptly forgotten. That’s what January is for. January is a useless month for awards, box office returns, and artistic endeavor. It is crowded by December holdouts and audiences are too busy joining gyms and watching movies at home as they get back into the swing of things after the holidays.

The thing of it is, Gangster Squad is in part a victim of force majeure, and also weakened by the revisionist path of its contemporaries. Let’s tackle this one at a time, and we’ll start with a recollection of a sad and horrible fucking day for everyone. Settle in for that.

The trailer for Gangster Squad was going to run ahead of The Dark Knight Rises, the finale of Christopher Nolan’s bombastic Batman trilogy. It makes sense. Gangster Squad was conceived as a play at old pulp magazine content, with a cartoonish style of R-rated violence and a straightforward good guy-vs-bad guy plotline. It was the 1940s Hollywood police story for a comic book superhero crowd. Labor Day weekend was perfect for it. Just as the Expendables franchise was in full swing, studios had proven that old-fashioned $40-80 million action movies did rather well at the end of summer, after all the billion dollar franchises went dormant.

Things didn’t work out thanks to a dipshit in Aurora, Colorado who staged a large-scale shooting on a packed auditorium full of good people who just wanted to watch Batman punch Bane. The shooting in Aurora was so horrifying to the general public that the studio wisely pulled the trailer for Gangster Squad. The twisted serendipity was that the trailer and the film itself featured a climactic shootout...in a movie theater. Fuck. Game over, right?

So, that action sequence was reshot completely and the setting was replaced by an alley in 1940s Los Angeles’ Chinatown. And the movie was subsequently pushed all the way to January 11, where it opened opposite the Waynes brothers horror spoof A Haunted House. The box office was largely dominated by awards-porn like Zero Dark Thirty (which claimed the No. 1 spot), Django Unchained, and Les Miserables. Also, there was plenty of run-off from December blockbuster The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.

After the stink of the reshoots and the Aurora tragedy had dissipated, the idea was for Gangster Squad to be judged on its merits rather than on its reflection of current events and violence in the entertainment industry. And this is where we come to that point from earlier, about “revisionist contemporaries.” Packed together with Oscar-bait like Quentin Tarantino’s revenge fantasy western, Kathryn Bigalow’s taut anti-terrorism thriller, and Peter Jackson’s gargantuan epic, Fleischer’s film might have looked out of place. Combine that with the all-star cast of Josh Brolin (riding high from his acclaimed work with the Coen brothers), Ryan Gosling (riding high from 2011’s Drive), Emma Stone (remembered from 2011’s The Help), and Sean Penn in the “this gives our movie legitimacy, like Alec Guinness in Star Wars” role. This movie did not look to audiences like a stupid-fun action thrill ride, which is what it was designed for. Instead, it looked like a wrongheaded stumble at a classy 1940s true crime noir thriller, like L.A. Confidential, or even like The Black Dahlia. While the movie has an old fashioned attitude in regards to the genre (the good guys are saints, the bad guy is a slobbering psycho, and the law is paramount above all), it was being compared to a genre that had largely moved on into a postmodern view. Comparing Gangster Squad to L.A. Confidential is like comparing The Lone Ranger to Unforgiven.

Predictably, Gangster Squad made a modest haul--a $17 million opening, with $46 million total domestic gross--and disappeared into the home video market as a bargain bin oddity. Reviews pegged it as a dunderhead cousin of Dick Tracy that played more like the cutscenes of the 2011 video game L.A. Noire. Fleischer tiptoed back to the safe haven of action-injected comedies, and the entire cast took a cue from the audience and pretended like the film never existed.

Now, do I believe that Gangster Squad would have been regarded as a masterpiece if that sick man hadn’t killed a bunch of people? No, of course not. But let’s go back to what I started with: the release date of a movie is just as big a selling point as the trailer. On a hot day at the end of summer, if you wanted one more R-rated action fix before the drudgery of autumn reared up, you might have seen Gangster Squad and had a good time, knowing full well that it was supposed to be The Expendables in 1940s Los Angeles. It wouldn’t be cherished necessarily, but it would probably be better remembered than it is now...as some adolescent misunderstanding of its own material, thanks to unfair comparisons with the classy pictures it was surrounded with and the classy pictures it inadvertently looked to mimic.

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