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Non-Review Review: Gangster Squad

To suggest that Gangster Squad favours style over substance feels like an understatement. Although the prologue claims that Gangster Squad was “inspired” by the true story of Mickey Cohen, it seems to favour mythic figures and sweeping action over real characters and nuanced drama. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. For most of its runtime, Gangster Squad feels like a trashy and update of a forties or fifties B-movie, cheap and nasty far executed with enough speed and charm to entertain. Occasionally the movie seems to falter – it clumsily attempts to shoehorn in some social commentary into this bright and colourful vigilante tale – but director Ruben Fleischer works well to keep things balanced. The wheels come off a bit towards the end, as Fleischer demonstrates he handles atmosphere better than action, but for most of its runtime Gangster Squad is a diverting piece of cheesy nostalgia.

This new plan is working gangbusters!

This new plan is working gangbusters!

You’d be forgiven for assuming that this was trying to be some sort of noir tale. After all, it’s set in post-war Los Angeles. It’s riddled with moral ambiguity as the police discover the only way to combat organised crime is through brutality and compromise. Good isn’t assured victory over evil. Even stylistically, the cast seems entirely composed of gangsters, killers, wives and molls. There’s brutality and violence, and a sense that there won’t be anything more than a pyrrhic victory for our leads – at best.

Still, Gangster Squad feels pretty far from that. The most striking aspect of Fleischer’s film is all the colour on display. There are times when the film seems hyper-saturated, and almost as though our leads inhabit a cartoon universe. The Los Angeles of 1949 is rich and vibrant, loud and full of flare. Neon lights are absolutely everywhere – particularly during a Chinatown confrontation. Even the soda pop that recovering alcoholic Sergeant Wooters drinks seems to glow in his hand. While it’s not as gaudy as Las Vegas, there’s a definite sense that we’re pretty far from the murky desaturated realm of most gangster films.

Forget it, Josh, it's Chinatown...

Forget it, Josh, it’s Chinatown…

And yet, to be honest, this is the level at which Gangster Squad works best. It’s like some very nasty cartoon brought to life. It isn’t some anonymous gangster at the centre of the film, it’s Mickey Cohen. The man is a legend in his own time, a celebrity who watches recordings of his bouts in celebration of his own physical strength and strength of will. He doesn’t deal in practical violence – every act of brutality seems more like bizarre and grotesque performance art.

Cohen is a showman, all about the flash and maybe a bit less about the substance. As portrayed by Sean Penn, he’s larger than life and a borderline mythological figure. He speaks in allegories and metaphors. He seems to have stories or anecdotes to pass on like the wisdom of the ages. He possesses a seemingly impossible sense of timing – able to synchronise his actions perfectly with a henchman half-way across the city. Sergeant O’Mara and his men might as well be attempting to slay a dragon or a giant, not destabilise a mob empire.

Just a crazy bunch of guys and dolls...

Just a crazy bunch of guys and dolls…

Gangster Squad isn’t a murky noir story, and it’s not really a historical account. It’s not nearly nuanced or sophisticated enough to work successfully as either. It is instead a collection of nice moments structured along a very clear arc. Sergeant O’Mara doesn’t collect officers for his secret crime-fighting unit, he recruits archetypes. There’s the family man, the Mexican, “the sheriff of Central Avenue” and the joker hiding his sorrow at the bottom of a glass. Indeed, one of his recruits even comes from the cover of True Detective, a pulpy crime magazine.

A more in-depth film would explore the mythology around Officer Max Kennard. We’d discover what it’s like to be a living legend, and to exist in the shadow of a reputation. Gangster Squad is, quite simply, not that film. Here we discover that Kennard is exactly as his publicity would have you believe. He even offers a bit of sage Yoda-esque advice to his fellow officers. “Don’t shoot at where it is… shoot at where it’s going to be.” I can also only assume that, at the diner after practice, he refused to order the soup because there is no spoon.

A well-oiled machine gun...

A well-oiled machine gun…

Gangster Squad is fairly superficially plotted. It doesn’t just indulge the gangster-film clichés, it wallows in them. You need the death of an innocent to bring your too-cool-for-school supporting lead around? It’s coming. You want dialogue composed of trademark witty banter and forties clichés? We can sort that for you. You need a late-night drive-by on a house using tommy guns? Hey, that’s up next. How about a big old-fashioned mano-a-mano fist-fight? Yep. It’s not too difficult to figure out what’s going to happen next, and there’s never too much depth to any of it.

However, that’s part of the appeal. Fleischer embraces the clichés of Gangster Squad and indulges the sense of style over substance. The images here seem like they were more likely figments of the popular nostalgic memory rather than anything that could actually happen. Gangster Squad is occasionally brutal, and sometimes frankly so, but Fleischer films all this in a way that looks pretty effective. This is more of an archetypal adventure than a historical drama.

All fired up...

All fired up…

However, the final shootout leaves a bit to be desired. It seems that Fleischer struggles with dynamic action sequences. There’s too much slow motion, and the use of high-definition imagery feels quite surreal. In a way, it almost recalls Michael Mann’s use of the technique in Public Enemies, but here the final scene uses it in a way that seems out of context. It’s a shame, because Fleischer’s direction gives the rest of a movie a nice stylistic touch.

The bigger problem is the fact that the script attempts to offer some clumsy social commentary. In particular, it seems to try to make some statement about the War on Terror and moral compromise. The eponymous group manages illegal wire taps, they torture for information and they suspend the civil liberties of their victims. “Remind me, sir,” one recruit inquires, “what’s the difference between us and them?” The issue of how to deal with threats to the social fabric like terrorism and even organised crime is very revealing.

Drink it in...

Drink it in…

It requires considerably reflection and consideration. Here, unfortunately, it all seems a little bit too awkward. It’s a shame, because there are some good ideas here. I like Fleischer’s shot of the front of the police headquarters, framing the quote from Lincoln about having to hope that “right makes might.” There’s something to be said for the way that Cohen claims to exploring his own form of “manifest destiny”, even if his repeated insistence that he represents “progress” seems a little overstated.

Similarly, comments about “the Wild f$!#ing West” and how the law wrested it from “savage Indians and Mexican bandits” seem rather pointed, contextualising mob violence in a history of American brutality. The problems come when Gangster Squad tries too much to anchor its idea in concrete modern ideas. We have a car bomb in civilian area during one sequence, reportedly replacing a theatre shooting. Chief Parker refers to Cohen’s crime wave as “enemy occupation” and asks O’Mara, a former military man, to wage a black ops “guerrilla war.”

They say the Penn is mightier...

They say the Penn is mightier…

It feels a bit too much to hang on a story so heavily constructed around these broad archetypes, and I think it weighs the film down considerably. Gangster Squad lacks the sophistication to explore ideas like that, and it works best when it embraces its superficiality, rather than hiding behind it. At its best, it’s a nasty, pulpy, trashy b-movie. At its worst, it’s a nasty, pulpy, trashy b-movie that loses sight of that.

One Response

  1. Very nice review.

    I had low expectations with this one, having read some reviews before watching it. Again, I was pleasantly surprised.

    Is the word “cliché” appropriate for this film? Yes. Is Sean Penn like a villain from an animated Batman episode? He is. Is the final scene slightly awkward and rather amusing? Of course. But my, is it another enjoyable two hours (ish) to spend at the cinema!

    It was like something from the 90s but with a little more edge. The only complaint I had was that that half of the image on the screen was blurred and was never fixed throughout the whole film but even that didn’t matter in the end. Who needs the left side, when all the actors seem to favour the right. Unfortunately, that may also be representative of a portion of Hollywood’s political leanings…

    The final two lines of this M0vie Blog review are indeed the best way to sum up Gangster Squad. I really wish critics would have a special rating for trashy but enjoyable films. I read an article recently which split up the film world/art world etc in different ways, including the idea that films, for example, don’t always have to be a work of art, they can sometimes just serve a function either personally or in society.

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