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Zombieland director Ruben Fleischer’s Gangster Squad is a fast-paced, genre-blending film that neglects the smart, methodical storytelling of film noir in favour of Tommy gun shoot outs and a ‘pulp’ visual style.
Los Angeles 1949: ex-boxing champ come notorious gangster Mickey Cohen (a caricatured and prosthetic nose-wearing Sean Penn) runs the California criminal underworld with plans to take on Chicago and New York. LAPD’s John O’Mara, played by the charismatic and ever excellent Josh Brolin, wants to give the people back their city and take down Cohen once and for all. So, at the Mayor’s request, O’Mara is entrusted to select and lead an elite gangster-busting team.
O’Mara’s team consists of the egotistical, laid back Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) who just so happens to have seduced Cohen’s love interest, Grace Faraday (Emma Stone); Robert Patrick’s sharp shooting old-timer Max Kennard and his Mexican rookie, Ramirez (Michael Peña) and, last but not least, Giovanni Ribisi’s techie Conway Keeler. This is a great cast but sadly most of them are under used or at best give average performances. Gosling appears the reliable choice to draw in the ladies and his performance proves this as he gives a lacklustre performance, which is a shame because he is talented. A severely under used Emma Stone doesn’t get enough screen time to shine. When she enters a bar in a lavish green silk dress, she is instantly demoted to the bar – the film squanders her potential. The most interesting characters, albeit stereotypical ones, are Kennard and Ramirez. Their relationship modernises the American western genres portrayal of the Latin American as ‘wetback’, something previously seen in Tommy Lee Jones’ The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005). However, it’s Josh Brolin that really keeps the film afloat.
The film’s use of violence is quiet excessive and has become a major talking point amongst the media – the movie theatre shoot-out sequence was cut from the film after the tragic incident in Aurora, Colorado. It’s definitely not balletic, but it’s pretty grim at times. Cohen’s sadistic nature is introduced to audiences in the opening sequence when we see his men tear another man in half with two cars. The hypnotic lights of the City of Angels are seen in the distance. By adopting high ground, Cohen asserts his authority and possession over LA and the bloodshed becomes a signifier of what will be coming to the city streets. ‘This isn’t Chicago. It’s the fucking Wild West.’ Where’s Peckinpah when you need him? As if the opening sequence wasn’t enough, there’s a driller killer in Cohen’s crew. This scene is relatively similar to Snape’s death in the Harry Potter series, in which the camera slides behind frosted glass – what you don’t see the sound makes up for!
Many critics have stated that the film looks like a comic book. The problem with adopting a comic book style is that it doesn’t compliment the elements of corruption in the film. Take a city like Gotham in the Batman franchise. That city is oozing with crime and corruption, and the grainy, oppressive darkness that saturates the mise-en-scene strongly reflects this. In L.A. Confidential, night-time is ripe for crime and it spreads like a disease; even the daylight becomes unbearable because the humidity is almost suffocating. Fleischer’s LA is too clean, too fancy. It’s screams modernity more than period piece. Moreover, where’s the atmospheric use of weather? Weather is an integral part of depicting the corruption and filth on the streets in noir and crime films. The cloaked darkness and rain-sodden streets in Road to Perdition (2002) is a great example of this. Gangster Squad hints at this but rather mildly. The final showdown between Cohen and O’Mara involves a fountain. Penn’s Cohen is literally brought to his knees by O’Mara and some could interpret this as O’Mara metaphorically washing his hands of Cohen (and corruption); his cleansing a new awakening for LA.
Despite its flaws, Gangster Squad boasts some good action sequences. There’s a thrilling Tommy gun shoot out in Chinatown and one in a hotel lobby that screams de Palma’s The Untouchables. It’s a shame that some of the action sequences relied so heavily on CGI because everything would have appeared much more gripping and shocking had it been authentically realised.