My first viewing of a proper 2013 release, and not an auspicious start. Gangster Squad has been the target of reviews that ranged from the middling to the lacerating, but some have tried to make a case for it as a throwback to a kind of pure, uncomplicated, comic-book-style retro pulp. With its rock-jawed lawmen, candy-coloured historical backdrops, brute-force aesthetics, and functional sense of dialogue and character, indeed, this case has certain superficial merits. The trouble with this, however, is the degree to which Gangster Squad can be said to embody many traits of classic pulp, if one is talking, specifically, of the bad traits. The basic premise of this film and its story permutations spin so far away from history, both on the journalistic level of historical reportage, and that of social and personal period reality, that it could almost be taking place an alternative universe. In this version of 1940s Los Angeles, a team of lawmen are given carte blanche by the Police Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) to fight Mickey Cohen’s increasingly hegemonic racketeering. Sean Penn sleepwalks through his screen-time playing Cohen, who, far from the slightly absurd creature who reinvented himself as a kind of celebrity wiseguy between prisons stints, is a glowering Golem given to doing cartoonishly bad guy-type things, like having hapless made men drawn and quartered, or locked inside burning buildings, exactly the sorts of things real gangsters don’t do to underlings because then they’d have no-one working for them.
Cohen finds himself up against Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), a vet who is, of course, still fighting The War. O'Mara's pregnant wife Connie (Mireille Enos) goes through the motions of asking him to stop risking his neck for what he believes in yadda yadda, but O’Mara just can’t stop pounding bad guys in these blissfully pre-Miranda Rights days. An early, relatively effective action scene, in which O’Mara saves a hapless LA tenderfoot (Ambyr Childers) from a mob of creepy rapist-pimps, riffs on the finale of Taxi Driver (without the irony) and that new staple motif of scenes designed to show how badass the hero is, taking out villains who surround him in an elevator (one wonders how many trips up to the 15th floor on obscure errands by future screenwriters in temp jobs have inspired these). Hands are severed, faces are smashed, and gunmen are laid out effortlessly by the quick-witted tough-guy. O’Mara is chewed out by his boss for playing by his own rules, but Chief Parker gets wind of it and hires O’Mara to go commando against Cohen. O’Mara gives his wife the job of parsing departmental files for good cops to join O'Mara's hush-hush squad, and arrives at a formidable collection of potential soldiers, including regulation ethnic and stereotype coverage, each equipped with a Fox Force Five-worthy speciality: old-timer six-shooter Max Kennard (Robert Patrick), knife-throwing black beat cop Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie), brainy gadget guy Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi), and eventually taking in Kennard’s able and willing Latino partner Navidad Ramirez (Michael Peña). Particularly, piquantly awful is a late scene where the team is gathered a row, with Mackie flicking his blade whilst professing readiness for action. In the finale, generational/ethnic torch passing is neatly – and by neatly I mean, excruciatingly badly and cheesily – signalled as Ramirez helps the mortally wounded Kennard aim his gun and take out a villain.
Gangster Squad often treads so close to the edge of send-up, and considering that director Ruben Fleischer’s first feature film was the pseudo-comic Zombieland (2009), the possibility that this was first conceived as a The Naked Gun/Police Squad-fashion piss-take doesn’t seem entirely improbable. It reminded me strongly of the reprehensibly awful Flyboys (2006), which likewise stole tropes from decades’ worth of sub-genre cinema and mashed them together into a singularly ludicrous whole. Sadly, Gangster Squad isn’t satirical; it’s just a lumpen, stupid, witless mess refashioned from the raw material of six hundred other, better cops vs gangster films. Ryan Gosling helps give the marquee drippy-crotch appeal for the ladies, making variations on his now-inescapable “hey girl” looks even in the midst of high-speed gun duels, playing O’Mara’s colleague and uneasy pal Jerry Wooters. Jerry is another ex-soldier, but one who’s determined to play the proto-hipster out for kicks and little else. In one of Fleischer’s idiotic, sub-Justin Lin directorial flourishes, he swoops his camera over a car as the squad do battle with some drug-runners, and drops it down through a CGI-enabled move, to swirl about and regard Gosling’s mug, rendered so impenetrably, expressionlessly stone-faced and two-dimensional by the poor effects that he could have been cut out of a Dick Tracy comic. Gosling, to his credit, does try to invest his largely extraneous character with hints of verve under the cool, as when, in one of the film’s few moments of offhand drollery, he sits watching a stripper, bobbing his shoulders in time with the music with insolent disinterest as O'Mara tries to headhunt his talents with blustery seriousness. Jerry is drawn into the plot when he starts secretly romancing Cohen’s uptown squaw Grace Faraday (Emma Stone), who tries to school her ogrish keeper in the arts of eating like a gentleman.
Stone registers a complete zero for the first time in any movie I’ve seen her in (even in the dreadful The Help, 2011, she fared better), largely because the edge of humour she usually brings to her roles is kept entirely at bay by the paper-thin tedium of her role, which is essentially to act as clotheshorse holding up some alluring ‘40s cocktail dresses, and flash her big doll eyes at Gosling. She’s nominally included to bring some feminine grace and contrapuntal energy to the blokes, as well as eye-candy, but really she’s present as a kind of screenwriter’s version of a kitchen utensil, fulfilling several possible uses without actually being endowed with independent life. She serves a function in the plot that’s laboured and poorly handled, affirms the heterosexuality of Gosling’s character, and presents a stake for the bull males in the narrative’s extended pissing contest like a thousand such characters before her, without anything like, say, the substance of Gloria Graham's infinitely more memorable variation in The Big Heat (1953). Jerry and Grace quickly jump in the sack together after some banter, in a scene that feature perhaps the worst attempts at screwball dialogue I’ve ever heard. But there is, of course, no hope of real carnality within the limitations of modern Hollywood where the erotic must be kept far away whilst bashings, blastings, bodily bifurcations, and burnings alive are all permissible. The human interaction that supposedly drives this kind of genre fare, which can’t take refuge in grand CGI landscapes and giant robots fighting, is so lamentable throughout that it’s both tempting to quote at length and yet it refuses to stick in the mind sufficiently to do so. The sorrow Gangster Squad provokes is sourced in waste: waste of a great cast, waste of a great premise, waste of great production values.
There are hints here, as in Oliver Stone’s Savages (2012), of likenesses between the protagonists of classic noir, as ex-GIs negotiate the cruel and disorientating urges of peacetime America, unable to give up their warrior ways or leave behind their demons, and the more modern breed of young men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. But where Stone’s film was sardonic and critical, Gangster Squad feels far too in love with its own message that extra-curricular force and urban guerilla warfare is necessary for staving off bad guys, War on Terror values transferred to the home front. There’s something apt in the way the film lets the Los Angeles Police Department’s later chieftain Darryl Gates, who helmed at the time of the Rodney King incident and LA riots and favoured such methods himself in the War on Drugs, bobs up in his (factual) capacity as Parker's chauffeur, with the same uncritical sense of historical laundering as J. Edgar Hoover’s silhouetted, worshipful appearances in The FBI Story (1959). The film’s moral simplicity (and indeed imbecility) is borne out by such flourishes as the shoeshine boy Jerry exchanges jocularities with is mowed down in an assassination attempt. Late in the film Keeler tries to introduce a note of complication as he questions whether the squad’s activities have become as bad as their enemies, but this is thrown away with as much glibness as is humanly conceivable.
Of course, Keeler, filling out the Charles Martin Smith role of disposable, geeky team member, will be iced by Cohen henchmen, as a suitable third act kick-starter, and way to silence the moral qualms. Cohen’s goons somehow manage to track him down to his back shed operating post, in spite of the fact the entire plot hinges on the fact that Cohen doesn’t know who the team molesting his operation are, and however the Cohen crew found out their enemies’ identities after uncovering their bug is not elucidated at all. Unlike in The Untouchables (1987), the film’s most obvious model, where Brian De Palma’s skill at creating context and empathy infused the fascistic leanings of David Mamet’s script with immediate humanity and volatility, here virtually every character remains a cartoonish sketch of a person, immaterial and alien. Perhaps the most interesting character in the film, oddly, is Cohen’s goon Jack Whalan (Sullivan Stapleton), a pal and informant of Jerry’s, who finally is killed trying to protect Grace from Cohen’s wrath, but his conflicted character and motivations are scarcely detailed. The film also lacks real story drive: potentially interesting plot elements, like the squad’s race against time to stop Cohen building a gambling empire, are set up and then tossed away in minutes. An excuse for a final shoot-up is quickly set up and sped into, and the results of it – completely imaginary and ahistorical – are similarly, cheaply skidded over, where entire, good noir films like The Narrow Margin (1952) have managed to sustain entire narratives and a wealth of excitement. The whole thing wraps up with a fist-fight between O’Mara and Cohen, whose boxing prowess proves no match for O’Mara’s righteous awesomeness, that rips off the already stupid final battle of Lethal Weapon (1987).
I turned off Zombieland on DVD after ten minutes: the only reason I stuck out Gangster Squad until the end was because I was in a movie theatre. Fleischer is clearly one of the almost endless number of slick hacks ready to leaven Hollywood’s lesser product with smarmy stunts that take the place of style and direction riddled with modish clichés. This film is a compendium of such offences, from slow-motion gun battles to CGI enhanced car chases that work up no excitement or visceral pleasure whatsoever. There are similarities, in the production design and the general aesthetic approach, to the stylised, pop-art accented retro look of some of Francis Coppola’s films, and a whiff here and there of the rococo decadence of De Palma’s The Black Dahlia (2006), but Fleischer has no hint of those directors’ contradictory talents or depths. Dion Beebe’s shooting is lush when drinking in immobile spectacle, but the digital photography is distractingly obvious, even tacky throughoutt, full of blurry close-ups and poorly scanned action shots. Unlike in Mann’s Miami Vice (2006), which Beebe also shot, this quality violates rather than enhances the film’s texture, because unlike Mann’s film this isn’t a study in hyper-modernism, but of period grit and class. Watching this misbegotten take on neo-noir, my mind kept jumping to some other, relatively recent and under-appreciated examples of this style, like Lee Tamahori’s excessively moody but interesting Mulholland Falls (which likewise featured Nolte) and Carl Franklin’s terrific Devil in a Blue Dress (both 1996): the retrospective ambiguity and tonal darkness, the efforts of those works and others, like The Black Dahlia and LA Confidential (1997), to reveal the gnarled and gruesome underbelly of the historical milieu and shine light into half-remembered wrongs, have here been displaced in favour of the shallowest appropriations and phony messages. Gangster Squad was purportedly held back from release and retooled repeatedly in an effort to save it, but as usual this may have made it even worse. It made me crawl into a bottle of Jim Beam and watch Kurosawa’s Stray Dog (1949), just to remember what real gangster films look and sound like.