By Michael S. Goldberger
Special to the Observer
A typical shoot em’ up, director Ruben Fleischer’s version of how a special police team was able to rid Los Angeles of gangster Mickey Cohen’s megalomaniacal control can’t help but dredge up current events. With each firefight, and following every vile spate of gratuitous brutality, the American appetite for bloodshed is affirmed. It boggles the mind.
So we ponder the same old argument, the bevy of rehashed rationalizations: Guns don’t kill people; Hollywood, by its example, kills people. Or, does it merely reflect and tacitly celebrate the social illness diagnosed in Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine” (2002)? Case in point: Consciously or not, “Gangster Squad” fills the trough of savagery.
“Inspired by a true story,” which could be interpreted to mean anything, in and of itself this film is inconsequential. It is neither historically accurate nor elucidative. Yet, on its own terms, filling a segment of society’s strange demand, it is effective. That it’s about subduing a known pariah gives permission to spray the red dye #3 without compunction.
The formula is familiar. And sadly, so is the conveyor belt delivery of murder and mayhem… a veritable smorgasbord of barbarity, executed in Rube Goldberg style. You see, plain old fashioned killing isn’t enough for today’s jaded, sanguinary tastes. You have to mix it up, add some explosions, and shock us with something really disgusting.
However, for those who say they can separate alleged entertainment from any social castigation lodged by a bleeding heart film critic, this is rousing stuff. Featuring decent production standards and fairly capable direction, the neo-“Chinatown” (1974), “L.A. Confidential” (1997) genre offers a good excuse to excitingly recreate the postwar period.
Emulating those last breaths of the film noir era, the art direction splays its graphic interpretation across the screen in movie poster color, concerned more with artistic paean than period accuracy. But the costumes are great, as are the cars, the interior design and the appurtenances. And most of the actors know not to play their characters too seriously.
Unfortunately, Sean Penn, arguably the most talented of the crew, can’t quite find a comfortable spot between actual portrayal and cartoonish caricature. Banged up to appear like the former boxer Cohen was, he is a ranting psychopath reminiscent of Al Pacino’s Tony Montana (“Scarface”), but looking more like his Big Boy Caprice in “Dick Tracy.”
Less problematic is Josh Brolin as the handsomely square-jawed Sgt. John O’Mara, handpicked by the even more square-jawed Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) to lead the intrepid crew of stereotypical misfits. Of course this ultra dangerous mission is something the war hero just has to do if L.A. is to be a safe place for the baby he and his wife are expecting.
A tad less clichéd, but also written to characterize the plight of returning WWII veterans trying to reassimilate into society, Ryan Gosling is Sgt. Jerry Wooters. He drinks, but isn’t cynical to the point of ruling out the chance of true love. It only figures that he and Mickey Cohen’s main squeeze, Grace (Emma Stone), supply the film’s taboo romance.
All recruited/introduced in “Magnificent Seven” (1960) fashion, the eclectic bunch of crime fighters extraordinaire represent a type for every demography. Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie) is the only law in the ghetto; Robert Patrick’s Max Kennard is a rootin’- tootin’, sharp shooting cowboy; and Giovanni Ribisi is the compulsory geek.
And, perhaps as homage to its filmic progenitor, there’s even the young, uninvited warrior, anxious to fight alongside the big boys. Portrayed by Horst Bucholz (Chico) in the aforesaid classic, here he is Navidad Ramirez, played by Michael Peña. No surprise, there is an infinite supply of Cohen henchmen, anxious to die in his iniquitous service.
However, while unabashedly derivative, and knowing full well it isn’t going to attract viewers with a serious historic interest, “Gangster Squad” is cautious to strut its carnage and butchery just a degree north of campiness. The opening scene, wherein Cohen means to send an ugly warning to his Chicago counterpart, unmistakably sets the sadistic tone.
All of which makes this formulaic, factory-made slab of fodder a cultural curiosity. Fact is, the blood and guts crowd could lap up much more hemoglobin spillage by feasting on any of several slice-and-dice horror films now playing at the Bijou. One wonders if clothing the slaughter in a gangster tale makes it more appetizing.
If I were smart enough, I’d teach the speculated link between movie gunplay and the epidemic assault on real-life Americans in a three-credit seminar at Harvard, especially if they threw in a dental plan. While only a footnote, “Gangster Squad” is symptomatic of a psychosocial disease that menaces us with no less virulence than any of history’s plagues.
“Gangster Squad,” rated R, is a Warner Bros. Pictures release directed by Ruben Fleischer and stars Sean Penn, Josh Brolin and Emma Stone. Running time: 113 minutes