Ads for Gangster Squad don’t really tout the fact that it’s from Ruben Fleischer, the director of Zombieland and 30 Minutes or Less, but maybe they should, because a lot of viewers are going to be in for a shock, unpleasant or otherwise. Nothing about the marketing campaign for the movie has even hinted at how ridiculously gory it is. Or how funny.
Make no mistake, while pundits cinematic and political agonize over the degree to which movies endorse torture or inspire gun violence, Gangster Squad gleefully runs roughshod over those issues with all the finesse of a runaway steamroller. The good guys in this movie casually brush off any concerns about civilian casualties while operating completely outside the law, shoot their captives repeatedly in the legs before tossing them off the Hollywood Hills and recklessly endanger their own loved ones. The bad guys tear a victim’s torso apart with cars at one point, and later stick a drill into somebody’s head – a scene which promptly cuts away to a piece of hamburger singeing on a barbecue grill.
Regardless of the now-deleted scene in which a theater gets shot up (narratively, it is not missed), this is not the sort of movie you’d want to release after any real-life shooting. If these movie cops were your local police, you’d want them strung up on charges and locked away. In a fictionalized past, sure, it’s still amoral, but that would only be a problem if the movie ever took itself seriously. And this is a movie set in the ’40s that makes a Darryl Gates joke. ‘Nuff said.
Of course some audience members will be upset anyway, just by the cognitive dissonance. You expect L.A. Confidential; you get the A-Team in fedoras, with Josh Brolin continuing his Men in Black III evolution into Tommy Lee Jones as the squad’s Hannibal, John O’Mara. A war veteran who can’t resist the temptation to beat the living shit out of bad guys when he encounters them, he’s just the type to lead an off-the-books war on crime under the plausibly deniable direction of legendary L.A. top cop Chief Parker (Nick Nolte).
Also on the team: Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling, desperately trying to channel Marlon Brando but coming off affected), a sergeant who no longer cares about much of anything beyond sex, cigs and Nehi soda until he sees a child become collateral damage in a drive-by right in front of him; Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie), the last good cop in the black neighborhoods, with an affection for throwing knives and a pathological hatred of Burbank that he verbalizes at every opportunity; Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi), a master of wiretapping and the only one to ever raise any moral objection to their tactics (it’s quickly dismissed, of course); Max Kennard (Robert Patrick), a crusty old codger, who’s a crack shot with a pistol; and Navidad Ramirez (Michael Pena), who I want to think is Kennard’s gay lover, but there’s technically no evidence for that onscreen – they just have a weirdly close friendship.
That the team is made up of six men is, I suspect, a deliberate choice to avoid direct 1:1 comparisons to The Magnificent Seven, though we might as well just go ahead and make them anyway.
The bad guy is Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), a boxer-turned mobster who wants to make L.A. his town, with no interference from the Chicago mob. Cohen was a real guy, but not so much this version, who’s more like a Dick Tracy villain that happens to be a heroin dealer too. He’s sleeping with Emma Stone, so of course Wooters tries to seduce her just for the hell of it, making things a whole lot worse than they need to be while he lectures O’Mara for being reckless. It all ends bloodily – not just in gunfire, but with brutal fistfights in which every blow draws Mortal Kombat levels of blood.
That writer Will Beal is allegedly writing a Lethal Weapon 5 script makes sense; that he’s doing a draft of Justice League, maybe less so if you take your heroes seriously. Fleischer, though, is becoming a consistent pleasure in my book, but then I’m that one guy who actually liked 30 Minutes or Less almost as much as Zombieland. His constant themes seem to involve people teaming up to comedically take on horrifically gory threats to their lives, and that’s a not a bad niche to have – provided your goal is to entertain a sick bastard like myself. If you want to laugh in the face of death, Gangster Squad’s your movie. If you were looking for accurate historical drama, go read the Oscar nomination list that came out yesterday.
[And just for fun, if you’ve already seen Gangster Squad, look up Mickey Cohen on Wikipedia. Totally alternate universe.]