A funny thing, it seems, happened on the way to The Avengers (or away from it, possibly). The things that help the Hollywood Machine determine what makes movies “good” – and help them determine what modern audiences might want to see – have shifted considerably. At least, that’s what seems to have happened in the case of Gangster Squad, starring Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Nick Nolte, Emma Stone and Sean Penn, released nationwide today.
Based on the book by Paul Lieberman (and, ostensibly, “true events”), Gangster Squad tells the story of square-jawed cop John “Sarge” O’Mara (Brolin) and his flippant, easygoing partner, Jerry Wooters (Gosling). After single-handedly exposing and destroying one of L.A. boss Mickey Cohen’s (Penn) vice dens, O’Mara is recruited by police chief Bill Parker (Nolte) to go “off the books” and take down Cohen by breaking down his operations and forcing him from the city.
Originally meant for release in the late summer of 2012, a large showdown between O’Mara, his “Gangster Squad,” and Cohen’s men was completely reshot. The sequence, originally taking place in a movie theater, was moved to a Chinatown locale after some concern arose there would be connections made to the shootings in Aurora, CO. There isn’t any momentum lost from this change – it’s still plenty violent, oddly – but there’s a possibility Gangster Squad originally had more to say about Hollywood and its perceptions of history than what ended up on the screen.
First, nobody in Gangster Squad talks like a real person. Absolutely everybody has an endless lexicon of period-specific jargon – much of it littered with unpleasant racial epithets – and behave as if they know they’re characters in a movie. Gosling’s wiseacre does little more than walk over to Mickey’s number one gal, Grace (Stone), and tell her they’re going to bed. Brolin’s wife (a charming enough Mireille Enos) – who’s pregnant, of course – has her prerequisite “I don’t need my husband being a hero speech,” before coming to her senses and helping him pick out the right men for the job. It’s bizarre. Even Giovanni Ribisi, looking older than he should, gives an eloquent speech about standing up against crime for his little boy, out of nowhere, as if his character was merely aware of the script and followed the proper directions.
Second, it’s a violent story set in a dazzlingly romanticized time, just like the Westerns from the 1950s and 60s. There are good guys, and there are bad guys, and nobody in between. The costumes, set design and music are all slick and pretty, but wholly unreal. And just when you think it can’t get any more metafictional, an actual “cowboy” (Robert Patrick), whose exploits O’Mara reads about in a true crime magazine, shows up and starts shooting away. Even the angry, honest black cop (Anthony Mackie) knows how to throw a knife and speaks some Swahili. (Did I mention it’s bizarre?)
Keep in mind, all of this strange commentary doesn’t make the movie any better, and none of it is commented upon, but that shootout in the theater might just have meant a little more than it was supposed to. The swagger, the dialogue, and the interminable jokiness of some of the characters – they’re fighting the biggest, baddest gangster in town yet they all seem to know who’s going to die and who’s not – indicates either more imagination from director Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland) than a movie called Gangster Squad deserves, or a series of happy accidents and decisions that resulted in a movie called Gangster Squad.
But back to the funny thing and The Avengers: The Avengers made a great deal of money, and the lead up to it was immense. (It’s not just The Avengers, really, but that makes for an easy example, the “rise of the comic book movie,” let’s call it.) The Dark Knight. Red. Hellboy. Iron Man. These movies presented colorful worlds of good and bad that keyed into what modern audiences wanted. Now, that same mentality is being applied to run-of-the-mill studio releases like Gangster Squad: We want our superheroes to be characters, and our characters to be superheroes.
Oh, and they are superheroes. The characters are hypercapable, courageous and beautiful, just like a comic book. And there are plenty of “badass” moments laser-focused to ensure audience laughter and cheering, and sometimes squirming. If Brolin, Gosling and his men are superheroes, they’re fighting a diabolical supervillain in the form of Sean Penn’s Mickey Cohen. For the usually more serious Penn, Gangster Squad might’ve been a paid gig, but he obviously enjoyed it, gnawing the scenery and leering ever so dangerously close to all of his victims. His forehead makeup appliance, even, makes him look less like a real guy and more like one of Batman’s Rogues Gallery.
If Gangster Squad had been based on a licensed property – Dick Tracy, for example – it would likely have been heralded as a “bracing,” “adult” take on the material. But it wasn’t. Instead, it’s an “untold” tale of Hollywood violence told in the most Hollywood way possible. The wooden planks holding up the facades are just barely out of frame, and – like Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables before it – Gangster Squad tries to apply some flash and zeal to history, when history might’ve been interesting enough on its own. LEAVE IT!
Gangster Squad, a Village Roadshow Pictures production distributed by Warner Bros., is 113 minutes long and rated R.