Review: Gangster Squad (The Cliff Notes of Gangster Movies)

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While pretty and often entertaining, Gangster Squad's a violent urban western that gets lost in the fog of homage.

There are copious gangster movies out there, and we know gangsters most as movie characters, so it's logical for a director (in this case Ruben Fleischer, Zombieland), to want to demonstrate his command of the genre with references to those movies, but instead of carefully choosing references to service a point, Fleischer and scriptwriter Will Beall (adapted from Paul Lieberman's true story) threw everything in. The result is unclear, often silly, and punctuated with violence that feels unmotivated--that's what happens when we can't tell what the film's about in principle. Josh Brolin's opening monologue (in voice over) about every man's "badge" ("A boxer has scars") is a theme the film picks up and drops immediately, which is terrible because it's the first theme we experience and ironic because it's as explicit as can be.

Gangster movies love two themes most: crime and celebrity (Bonnie and Clyde et al) and Westward Expansion (Goodfellas etc). When Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) enters a club, the Paparazzi swarm. A reporter asks a question that turns Cohen from businessman to butcher in the blink of an eye. Shortly thereafter, he utters the words "Westward Expansion" to Emma Stone. I have two words, too: Cliff Notes

Brolin's John O'Mara “isn’t much for abstract thinking” (real film quote), is a WWII vet and this film's answer to Wyatt Earp. He loves LA and protecting his city is a concrete action, unmarred by alternatives, self-preservation or moral grey area. To some, O'Mara is naive, but he earns respect from peers and occasional moment of dramatic bombastic from the film (that's how Gangster Squad shows affection). When his dogged pursuit of kingpin Cohen yields casualties, he bears the guilt on himself, constituting the only time we have access to this character's emotions. He's so strangely impermeable; Brolin's great stony exterior keeps us all out, leaving us to presume his feelings from the reactions of other (generally great) cast members.

On the up-side, the film has some great turns by a lady-killing Ryan Gosling, a paranoid Giovanni Ribisi and a calculated Anthony Mackie among others. In fairness, Gangster Squad benefits from repetitions of tommy gun stand-offs and Emma Stone’s Buggs-Bunny-in-Silk impersonation, but the fact this genre is one that delivers a great deal of violence (limbs pop off like Barbie parts) while having one foot in an unfamiliar reality, makes it a tricky cultural proposition.

Distributor Warner Bros held release of Gangster Squad for a season after a shooter entered a theater in Aurora, CO and killed 12 people (injuring more). This occurred 30 minutes into a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises before which the Gangster Squad trailer had played, featuring a sequence of machine guns shooting up a movie theater. WB removed the trailer from circulation and pushed the release date to January.

While I'm glad Warner Bros held the release, I think it an insufficient gesture. Then again, karma's pretty real. Gangster Squad is primed to be a pariah (though it hasn't been treated such so far) and it has the potential to stoke the ire of critics and fans (I hope to write another piece on the matter shortly), in which case Gangster Squad could help us move towards a more visible debate on violence and media. Call me naive.

Violence and media are difficult subjects to address, partly because the association is abstract, but couldn't it also be true that outrages like Aurora or Newtown are as real to most of us as Tony Soprano? Scarier things are true.

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About Sara Vizcarrondo

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Sara Vizcarrondo is a freelance film critic out of San Francisco. She runs Opening Movies at Rottentomatoes, teaches film/media studies at DeAnza college and writes on film for Popdose and The SF Bay Guardian.

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