(Video on-Demand, April 2013) There’s a fine line between parody, homage and unimaginative filmmaking, and it’s unfortunate that Gangster Squad seems to straddle all three at various times. I’m certainly not objecting to the idea of a muscular crime thriller set in post-war Los Angeles: cops-versus-mob movies are the bread-and-butter of the crime-thriller genre, and a director as gifted as Ruben Fleischer should have done wonders with the concept, especially given a an ensemble cast of talented actors. At times, Gangster Squad is exactly what it should be: a broad straight-up action movie where brash cops slap down the burgeoning L.A. mob scene. Car chases, fist-fights, explosions and gunfights: No problem. Unfortunately, Gangster Squad ends up feeling a bit too naive even for its intended goal: the tone isn’t controlled, the plot strands are both tired and used without refinements, the dialogues are weak and even the capable actors can’t do much with what they’re given. The worst example of this is probably the romantic sub-plot between Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling: both are good actors with great chemistry, but they’re not given anything interesting to do together. Historically inaccurate to a degree that can be divined even by the most unobservant of viewers, Gangster Squad should be an old-fashioned thriller à la L.A. Confidential, but ends up a barely-competent photocopy of better works. The historical re-creation, decent actors and overall potential can’t make up for the wasted opportunities.
(In theaters, August 2011) As a criminal comedy, there are a lot of similarities between this and Pineapple Express. Not only does Danny McBride has a prominent role in the two movies, but both are criminal comedies starring underperforming slackers in the lead roles. Here, a pizza delivery guy in his twenties is kidnapped by two other slackers, put in an explosive vest and told he’s got no other choice by go rob a bank. What follows is a quick 80-minutes tale of criminal stupidity and plucky heroes. Forget about social commentary, wholesome family entertainment or mind-expanding revelations: It’s pure comic character work set within a thriller template. Despite the film’s similarities to the Brian Douglas Wells criminal case, 30 Minutes or Less doesn’t claim to be based on a true story, and fortunately doesn’t try to remind aware audiences of the real-life drama. Jesse Eisenberg is a bit more tolerable than you’d expect as the lead, but it’s really Aziz Ansari and Michael Peña who steal the show in enjoyable supporting performance. The script is peppered by high-energy moments –including a car chase that plays with the conventions of the genre and a quick ending that’s over almost before we know it. The humour to too crude to be fully enjoyable, the violence is too gory to be forgettable and the rhythm is inconsistent, but 30 Minutes or Less still manages to score a few hits, and the tone is just controlled enough to avoid the exasperating immaturity of, say, Pineapple Express. While it’s a step down for Zombieland director Ruben Fleisher, it’s nonetheless an acceptable summertime crime comedy.