Film review: Gangster Squad

Last year, I resolved to see a new film each week and write a review, but a back injury and the election got in the way of that effort.  This year, I’m off to a fresh start … even if Hollywood isn’t.  Gangster Squad offers a collection of clichés and wooden performances that ends up providing no real tension or surprises, even with a talented cast on hand.

Gangster Squad purports to be “inspired by a true story” about legendary gangster Mickey Cohen, and it’s certainly true that Mickey Cohen was an actual gangster.  It’s also true that Mickey Cohen lived in Los Angeles. There was an actual Gangster Squad in the LAPD, as the LA Times’ Paul Lieberman reported in 2008, and which was undeniably the inspiration behind James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential. After that, you’re on your own, historically speaking. The film starts off with a psychopathic bit of violence from the ersatz version of Cohen (Sean Penn), along with a ludicrous damsel-in-distress rescue by Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), and it only gets more ridiculous from there.  LAPD Chief William Parker (Nick Nolte) commissions O’Mara to form a Gangster Squad to wreck Cohen’s crime empire, telling him to go to war rather than enforce the law.  O’Mara collects a small team of oddballs to take Cohen down, assisted by O’Mara’s pregnant wife Connie (Mirielle Enos).

If this sounds familiar, well, it should.  Gangster Squad borrows from The Untouchables in the same way that Cohen “borrowed” from his victims.  We get the old and forgotten veteran (an almost unrecognizable Robert Patrick), the rookie Latino (Michael Peña), and the Charles Martin Smith-esque geek in Giovanni Ribisi, along with a couple of additions in Anthony Mackie and Ryan Gosling as the jaded, cynical, almost-but-not-quite corrupt cop whose inner honor will win the day.  Oh, by the way, Gosling’s Sgt. Jerry Wooters is sleeping with Mickey Cohen’s girlfriend Grace Faraday (Emma Stone), in only the first of a series of laughable plot twists.

What makes Gangster Squad so remarkably unremarkable is the utter lack of any moral tension.  No one seems to have much trouble with the idea of turning a half-dozen policemen into Murder and Mayhem Incorporated.  The entire amount of time spent by the protagonists on this question is less than one minute of screen time, which went something like this:

RIBISI: I’m having qualms about becoming just like Cohen and his guys.

BROLIN: We’re nothing like Cohen and his guys.

RIBISI: Thanks, I feel much better now.

Even the cast can’t redeem this film.  Brolin walks through the picture with his jaw squarely set, glowering all the way.  Penn certainly provides malevolence in his depiction of Cohen as a psychopathic loose cannon, but not much else.  Gosling and Stone do a little better, but the arc of their romance is rushed and hardly believable. Everyone else is wasted on screen, including the rest of the Squad, who provide little else than archetypes and bullets.  The end features a voice-over epilogue that reminds everyone just how contrived this mess was for the previous 110 minutes, after a Lethal Weapon-esque final fistfight between the main protagonist and antagonist.

Contrast this with The Untouchables, which I think is overrated but at least addressed the moral issue of crossing the line between law enforcement and thuggery.  For that matter, skip The Untouchables and watch the infinitely superior L.A. Confidential , which dealt with the same issues in nearly the same time and place — but put the thugs in the right moral position, and managed to get the Cohen story more accurately than this movie did even as a subplot.  The result of this moral abdication is a series of violent battles in which we are supposed to root for law enforcement to act like a rival gang, a series in which bullets get sprayed all over the screen without even a stylish, original depiction (as in The Untouchables) as some sort of compensation.

And let’s talk about that violence, especially with Hollywood busily lecturing us about gun control these days — including, hilariously, a few of these cast members.  This film does nothing but glorify violence, not just as stylish entertainment but also as the answer to crime and social problems.  It’s an almost-unending series of bullet eruptions that numbs much more than it excites. It’s not just this film either; the trailers featured a nearly continuous stream of upcoming films that sells gun violence as entertainment.  The only two films out of eight that didn’t try to sell themselves as bullet-fests were The Call, a thriller with Halle Berry about a serial killer, and 42, the long-awaited Jackie Robinson biopic with Chadwick Boseman and Harrison Ford.  None of the others demonstrated any particular wit or originality, and will probably make Gangster Squad look like an Oscar contender in comparison.

Filmmakers, heal thyselves.

Gangster Squad is rated R for violence, strong language, and, er … violence.  It’s not appropriate for children of any age, and I’d argue not really appropriate for anyone else, either.

Update: R. S.McCain explains why noir works, and why this doesn’t:

The classic film noir set-up requires a flawed protagonist who finds himself trapped in a situation where right and wrong are not clear, where sinister individuals are trying to deceive him, and he must rely on his wits to survive. Also, there is usually a dame involved in the problem. …

Film noir is never just a shoot-’em-up. The danger of violence – a sense of menace — is very real in film noir, but the movie is not about violence.