Cliché-ridden ‘Gangster Squad’ is little more than a garish genre wank

cliché-ridden-gangster-squad-little-more-garish-genre-wank
'Gangster Squad' is out now. (Courtesy Warner Bros. Entertainment)
Tweet Share on Facebook Share on Tumblr Print

Follow: feed

Watching Brian DePalma’s Scarface for the first time, not long ago, I had a hard time divorcing the film from its myth.

When you finally see a movie that set a thousand ripples flowing through the culture, it can appear to be a victim of its own influence, as though it were only a two-bit satellite for all those ripples and not their source.

I was a little kid when Scarface came out but I remember its release, mainly because my father and my uncle made an outing of it. I particularly recall the two of them standing in the foyer in their overcoats, excited but stern as I sulked about being left behind. They never went to the movies together, so what made this one so special, and why couldn’t I come? “It’s not for you,” they repeated as they swept out the door, leaving me with the bitter, mournful taste of leather-scented air.

There are more direct references to other gangster movies in Gangster Squad, Ruben Fleischer’s garish genre wank, but like most post-1983 gangster movies (and rap videos), indirect references to Scarface abound. Of course DePalma was himself updating the original Howard Hawks version from 1932, which was loosely based on the exploits of Al Capone. Capone was said to love the film so much he had his own print.

MORE ON CAPITAL

ADVERTISEMENT

There’s just something about gangsters and Hollywood: they like it; it likes them. Gangster movies have been inbreeding this love for generations, producing one golden child—a Chinatown, Goodfellas, Untouchables, or L.A. Confidential—for every litter of cross-eyed duds. The best that can be said for Gangster Squad is that it secures, for now, the position of alpha dud, the fedora-capped king of clichés. It’s less a gangster movie than a gangster mutation with tommy-gun Tourette’s.

Mickey Cohen, the real-life kingpin at the center of Gangster Squad, was a protégé of Capone’s. Both Brooklyn boys, Capone moved to the Midwest and Cohen all the way to the left coast to establish their respective empires. Set in 1949 Los Angeles, Gangster Squad purports to tell the story of the rogue band of detectives assembled to bring down Cohen (Sean Penn) and his gang of pimps, thugs, and bookmakers. An opening sequence finds Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) saving a would-be ingénue from a vicious pimp and Cohen punishing an insubordinate by having him pulled apart like a Christmas cracker.

That the moral line dividing the two men is not as neat as it first seems is one of two themes bludgeoned to meaty bits in a script (written by Will Beall, working from Paul Lieberman’s book) that would make Dick Tracy blush. The other is the suggestion that although the war has been won, World War II veteran O’Mara can’t stop fighting. Beall has several characters swear to this observation to make sure it sticks, among them O’Mara’s pregnant wife (Mireille Enos), alcoholic super-flake Sgt. Wooters (Ryan Gosling), and tech-savvy family guy Officer Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi).

Along with the latter two men, Anthony Mackie, Robert Patrick, and Michael Pena are enlisted to complete the squad O’Mara puts together at the behest of his police chief (Nick Nolte). Then it is announced (by Nolte, I think, although a lot of people announce a lot of the same things in this movie) that a guerrilla war will commence for the soul of Los Angeles. What that looks like is a series of comic book confrontations: Los Angeles slays itself as the squad launches a series of assaults on Cohen’s operation, one after the other, culminating in a Chinatown shootout. The original climax, set in Grauman’s Chinese theater, was scrapped in the wake of last summer’s massacre in an Aurora Cineplex. Knowing this, watching the same carnage play out in some less fraught or freshly blighted location casts a cold light on the ugly shell game animating most of Gangster Squad, which appears to have no motivation wholly its own and no one element that couldn’t be swapped out for another of equally vapid derivation.

The story certainly wasn’t guided by the fascinating, abhorrent life of Mickey Cohen. Played by Penn as a craven psychopath, Cohen was a millionaire who never learned how to count; a compulsive hand-washer who told Mike Wallace in 1957 that he had “killed no man that in the first place didn’t deserve killing”; a celebrity-monger who owned not just cops and judges but journalists and movie stars. It’s not that he gets off easy in Gangster Squad, it’s that for all of Penn’s flapping, he’s never looked so small.

Where Penn is a more expected presence in a movie with entirely serious lines like “Now my whole crop of cunt is ruined,” and “You’re talking to God, you might as well swear to me,” Gosling can be relied upon to photo-bomb it. Playing the lover of Cohen’s best girl (Emma Stone, shruggy and wasted as a moll caught between meatheads) and doing the opposite of whatever they did to Gina Carano’s voice in Haywire, here Gosling goes up an octave, an exciting development for close watchers of his baby-voiced tough-guy repertoire. It should be a pleasure to see this cast suit up to perform a type of masculinity as precise and restrictive as that embodied, on the other side of the spectrum, by a Swan Lake ballerina. Instead, and especially where Gosling is concerned, it’s a chore, like peeling through a proud little pickled onion to find it ends where it begins: with a smirk.

Though the LAPD tried everything, including a jaywalking rap, Cohen was only successfully brought down, twice, on tax evasion charges. Not so in Gangster Squad, which builds to a bunkered standoff of Scarface proportions, complete with kamikaze tagline, followed by a glib denouement, where a few cheers for the use of illegal force in desperate times pass over one last montage of greatest cop-and-gangster hits.

Some part of me, that night my dad and uncle went to see their secret show, took up the idea that movie violence is sophisticated, serious, grown up. Scarface forged a new frontier for gunplay on screen; it’s also, as campy and oddly self-referential as it occasionally felt to me, a pretty great movie. I don’t know that the two things are connected, though plenty of Hollywood products, including Gangster Squad, are evidence that somebody thinks so. I do know that if this is what the grown-ups are watching, I’d rather stay at home.