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USA 2013
Directed by
Ruben Fleischer
113 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
1 stars

Gangster Squad

Synopsis: In post-war Los Angeles, LAPD sergeant John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) assembles an undercover squad of cops to wage a guerilla war against mobster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn).

Who doesn’t love a good gangster movie? Along with the musical it is one of Hollywood’s paradigmatic genres and over the years, from William Wellman’s The Public Enemy (1931) to Michael Mann’s Public Enemies (2009) there have been plenty of fine examples, many of them coming from the Warner Brothers stable, as does this film. Unlike those films, although it’s got top-end production values and a crowd-drawing cast, Gangster Squad is reprehensible rubbish.

Whilst there is potentially a credible movie discernible in the “inspired-by-a-true-story’ material, the problem is that executive producer and director Ruben Fleischer whose main screen credit to date is the 2009 horror gore "comedy", Zombieland, pulverizes it with self-indulgent crassness.

Fleischer doesn’t waste any time in lowering the tone, opening with a scene, set under the proscenium arch of the Hollywoodland sign, in which Penn’s Cohen has one of his Mob opponents torn apart by being chained between cars accelerating away from each other. In retribution, Brolin’s heroic sarge, pounds a few goons into pulp, one of them getting his hand shorn off by an elevator, before Cohen reappears and sets the surviving henchmen on fire in the same lift shaft. These sorts of goings-on are accompanied by comedic bon-mots such as when Cohen orders the execution of an under-performing minion, saying to the executioners “You know the drill”, they pick up an industrial-sized piece of equipment of the same name and proceed to bore holes in the victim’s head. Oh, the wit of it all!

This level of sadism-as-entertainment in a mainstream Hollywood release I have not encountered before (a scene in which gangsters mow down an audience in a movie theatre was pulled in the wake of the Aurora, Colorado cinema shootings in July there's sensitivity, for you!!). Understandably, gangster stories will have their quotient of violence, sometimes extreme, but when, like this film, the story becomes a mere vehicle for brutal set-pieces the purely exploitational agenda is shamefully apparent.

Of course, being a mainstream release, the violence is larded with the same kind of self-righteous, good guy vs. bad guy rhetoric we see in the just-released Jack Reacher. In a kind of idiot inversion of The Wild Bunch, instead of a historically valid epitaph for a gang of outlaws on their way into the abyss of the past we now get a juvenile fantasy of triumphant gang of vigilante cops (one of whom thinks he is a cowboy!) defending the moral order for future generations of LaLa-land denizens and, by extension, America and the world at large. And yes, there are the usual patriarchal, nuclear family sentimentalities coded in to give the violence a veneer of probity (the only character to raise a moral qualm about vigilante justice is an egg-head type marked for early disposal).

Despite the late 40s/early 50s setting the production design is largely generic Art Deco, whatever story there is carries no dramatic weight whilst the characters are all 2D cut-outs from the B-grade crime genre. From James Cagney’s Cody Jarrett in White Heat  to Al Pacino’s Tony Montana in Scarface there have been some memorably out-of-control screen sociopaths but Sean Penn’s is a one-note performance of glowering, grotesque sadism. If Josh Brolin does a good gimlet-eyed Dick Tracyish comic book cop, squeaky-voiced Ryan Gosling is no-one’s idea of a cynical World War II vet and pantsman whilst alluring-as-a-tent-pole Emma Stone is equally mis-cast as a gangster’s moll. Still, I don’t believe anyone involved in this film was interested in being faithful to their material. Gangster Squad can only make you wonder what is is wrong with Americans that they should waste so much time, talent and resources on creating something of such little value.  

So there, you’ve been warned. If you see this film you have only yourself to blame.




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