CINEMA: Gangland Style

GANGSTER SQUAD (2013, directed by Ruben Fleischer, 113 minutes, U.S.)

BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC I’ve never been one to adopt the cry that stamping out violent media is the cure for reducing troubling crime rates but I’ve seen few films that seem as beholden to gun-culture fetishism than the would-be epic Gangster Squad. A lot of bullets fly in this paper-thin distillation of every gangster movie ever made, and while it is hard to imagine this film inspiring anything more than dismay, the film serves as a holy document of our nation’s absurd belief in the curative powers of a smoking barrel.

The film’s naked love of guns would not seem so prominent or problematic if the film itself wasn’t so threadbare of ideas and wit. Gangster Squad presents Josh Brolin as Sgt.O’Mara, a two-fisted vet who returns from WW II with a burning desire to clean up the streets. Sean Penn is Mickey Cohen, the gangster who is making the city of L.A. his own. Only a wishy-washy, weak-kneed liberal would think Cohen should be taken down by using the law (Giovanni Ribisi plays just such a weak-kneed liberal here) so instead Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) privately gives O’ Mara the clearance to put together some tough-ass gunslingers to declare guerrilla war on Cohen’s crime operation on the streets of LA.

As a fan of film history, I’m probably half-way to loving any period crime film, so full is my mind of Corleones, Cagney, Goodfellas and Scarfaces. Just seeing Josh Brolin’s impossibly square jawline beneath a fedora evokes all sorts of past movie pleasures but after a snappy punch-out opening it quickly becomes apparent that Gangster Squad is happy just to have its young cast shooting and running around in the fancy clothes while big band jazz swings in the background. Actually cooking up a plot was apparently way down on the producer’s list of priorities.

There’s no fancy detective work, no double-crossing insiders, and no twists of fate; every move forward in this film comes from O’Mara picking up his men and walking in the door blasting. Early on the crew the crew plans to rob one of Cohen’s casinos and instead find themselves in a face-off with crooked uniformed policemen. Finally, an acknowledgment that going beyond the law might cause complications, but instead O’Mara and his men go back to blasting away and since no police get hurt, that potentially-intriguing complication brushes easily away.

The film continues to evade such complexities, remaining as lightly plotted as a children’s cartoon. It was the presence of Sean Penn that made me believe something richer might be at hand here. In recent years Penn’s films, successful or not, have been carefully chosen. The director, Ruben Fleischer, was responsible for the well-received Zombieland back in 2009, perhaps that might have made the 52-year-old star unduly optimistic. Beneath a great deal of facial latex, Penn gives a Stallone-worthy performance, bellowing and snorting away in a few scenes, his high-pitched performance bringing back memories of the 1990s Dick Tracy film. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone get by on their good looks as the clandestine lovers, him a member of O’Mara’s gangster squad and her being Mickey Cohen’s girl. Robert Patrick plays the gangster squad’s quick draw artist and Anthony Mackie is an African American squad member whose main characteristic is that he is good with a knife (a period film with a period stereotype much?).

The final showdown comes when it is time to bring in Mickey Cohen. What’s the plan? Reload the guns and go get him, of course. The bullet casings dance in slow motion and everything works out splendidly.  Maybe it isn’t the excitement of mayhem unleashed that inspires violence, maybe it is that we climax so many stories in our culture with a burst of violence that unleashes a calming peace. Violence brings on the happy ending for Sgt. O’Mara here, but it is not very successful at distinguishing Gangster Squad from a mountain of other such half-baked nonsense.