Gangster Squad

The rare film that should have been MORE superficial
Reuben Fleischer
Josh Brolin, Sean Penn, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone
The Setup: 
Pop pastiche of previous gangster movies.

This didn’t look great, but it didn’t look awful, and although it got pretty terrible reviews, my friend and I thought it could be tolerable, especially as there was nothing else to see. The reviews mostly describe it as a comic book version of gangsters, a pastiche of other, better gangster films in light pop, and it drew comparisons to Dick Tracy. The critic in the NYTimes even suggested it might have been better if done with cartoon animals. In retrospect, it might have been, and though it was thoroughly tolerable, it’s really just a remake of The Untouchables with a few elements switched out, and a complete lack of any real intelligence.

We open with a title that this is "inspired by" a true story, which, if you think about it, could also be applied to Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. Then we have a nice night shot of the L.A. of 1949, which had a bit of a storybook fantasy to it, making me hope that this film would draw on some of the postcard-style visual dreaminess of The Thirteenth Floor or The Shadow. A bit, but not as much as desired. Josh Brolin plays John, who just came out of World War II and is a straight-up honest cop with a pregnant wife. He explains that Sean Penn as Mickey Cohen is an East Coast gangster who came out to LA and is building his empire there. In the first scene, John sees a young woman being picked up by one of Coehn's lackeys, brought back to his hotel and about to be gang-raped, then later drugged and pressed into prostitution, but John, ninja-style, defeats several men in an elevator and several men in the apartment to rescue her and bring the bad guys in. But the whole police force has been bought off by Cohen, and the guys he's just arrested are set free! Goll-Dern it, what's an honest cop to do?

So Nick Nolte shows up as the only honest bigwig on the police force, and he tasks John with putting together a squad to go after Cohen, completely off the official books. Meanwhile, Ryan Gosling as Jerry starts going after Cohen’s girlfriend, Grace, played by Emma Stone. They start having a rather long-lasting affair, which you might have thought might be difficult, since Cohen is the biggest, most vicious gangster in town, with informants in every corner of town and remorselessly killing anyone who crosses him, but apparently it’s actually quite easy! Anyway, John recruits a black cop, and an old coot to fill the Sean Connery role, who comes with a Latino who may (?) be his gay lover, and also Giovanni Ribisi as the brain, analog to the accountant character in The Untouchables. I think if they tried they could have shoehorned in an Asian, just to make the diversity angle complete. Jerry is initially reluctant, but joins up after the killing of an innocent shoeshine boy.

From there the movie just ticks off clichés as it goes. The squad has an initial failure, then a series of successes, then after the requisite time, Cohen figures it’s a bunch of cops after him, and he targets their families. There are action scenes, would-be suspense scenes, and eventually one less-loved member of their crew is killed. By the way, in here, all the guys, including characters who could not shoot at all at the beginning, become crack shots. The gangsters prove barely able to hit anything, even with machine guns. I don’t know, I kind of thought machine guns were something to be feared, but now I see that they’re not really that threatening at all. They only hit candles, planters and walls.

Along the way, there are several opportunities to put a bullet in Cohen’s head, like just walk up and do it, fix the problem easily, but there was a line earlier about how if they killed him, another gangster would just take his place, so for reasons of the script it’s important that he get arrested. It all comes to a head in a big shootout with those ineffective machine guns that can’t hit anything, which is curiously drama and excitement-free. Oh, and adding the final touch to make sure we understand that this is just The Untouchables beat for beat, that big shootout takes place on a large staircase, and ultimately, Cohen is brought in on a smaller charge, not his larger crimes.

So it’s a bit unfortunate that it bears such a resemblance to The Untouchables, since the comparison is so unflattering. When Brian De Palma has a stairway shootout, he recreates the Odessa Steps sequence from The Battleship Potemkin. When Reuben Fleisher has one, it’s just a shootout, and a not very exciting one. My friend and I were wondering why many of the action scenes here just weren’t that exciting, most notably a scene where we know a truck might explode, which seems like it should be a crack scene with lots of suspense, yet it’s just lackluster.

Another notable thematic departure is that in The Untouchables, a whole topic is whether the police should stoop to the level of violence shown by the criminals, and how doing so troubles the conscience of its main character. Here it is just assumed that the cops will, and must, be flat-out killers of criminals, and the whole moral question of what means should be used to fight crime is not even up for discussion.

So ultimately it’s just kind of a comic book, a pastiche of earlier gangster films but with no depth, which is why they should have just gone further and outright made it a cartoon. I’ll stop short of cartoon animals, but perhaps some iconic imagery? You have all these handsome guys who look great in suits and fedoras, and only the slightest story with the depth of a puddle, who not make it a visual fest with lots of gorgeous, iconic 40s crime visuals? You already have Emma Stone essentially doing Jessica Rabbit, and Penn wearing prosthetics to make him nastier looking, why not just go whole-hog with the thing? So it’s already halfway to a cartoon, and the only people who may not realize it… are the filmmakers. Who, in interviews, seem to think this is a pretty serious, with, like, characters and depth and everything. Guys, get out of Hollywood for a weekend.

So when it was over, my friend said “I’m glad I saw it,” which I think is his natural optimism and goodwill showing through, because I think it’s more accurate to say one is “not sorry I saw it.” I wasn’t bored, and it was pleasant enough and involving enough, and it goes down smooth while it lasts. It’s only toward the end that you realize it isn’t adding up to much, and there’s almost no emotional involvement, and the climax isn’t very exciting. Then afterward, it really crumbles. It’s too bad it can’t be withdrawn, reworked as more of a cartoon and visual fantasia, and put back out there. Ah well.

Should you watch it: 

If you have nothing better to do.