Starring: Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone
Director: Ruben Fleischer
Screenplay: Will Beall, Paul Lieberman (book)
Action/Crime/Drama, Rated: R
Release Date: Jan 11, 2013
Running Time: 113 minutes
(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)
Greg, looks like Sean Penn and Josh Brolin go head-to-head in Gangster Squad.
And Emma Stone plays the beautiful girl, again. Let’s recap:
The year is 1949 and World War II has only recently ended. The movie introduces us to Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), a ruthless mobster who has taken over the city of Los Angeles but aspires to control the entire state of California. To send a message to other rival gangsters, Cohen murders a mobster from Chicago in a most horrible manner. Then Cohen sets a group of his own men on fire for bungling a job. Police Chief Bill Parker (Nick Nolte) has had enough. He asks one of his top police sergeants, John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) to assemble a group of cops with the goal of destroying Cohen’s grip on the city, even if it means bending a few rules.
O’Mara’s wife is worried and dutiful. She helps him pick out the best cops for the troop. After all, she wants this job over with as soon as possible and she wants her man coming home alive. Old army buddy and fellow cool cop Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) is hesitant to join, but is all in when a young shoe-shine boy catches a bullet in a gangland drive-by.
The squad is complete with O’Mara (the ex army sergeant), Wooters (the dutiful soldier), Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie, the good cop), Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi, the brains), Max Kennard (Robert Patrick, the old sharpshooter), and “Christmas,” Navidad Ramirez (Michael Peña, the “kid of the gang). Together they take on Cohen’s syndicate in disguise so that Cohen doesn’t know they are cops and who to retaliate against.
What the movie consists of, essentially, is a bloodbath of a fight between Cohen’s goons and O’Mara’s Gangster Squad. Greg, Gangster Squad is one of the darkest movies I’ve ever seen, and I mean ‘dark’ in both senses of the word. It’s a literally dark film in that most scenes primarily occur at night, and inky black shadows cover half the screen most of the time. But it’s also morally and emotionally dark. Other than the two women characters, Connie O’Mara (Mirielle Enos) and Grace Faraday (Emma Stone), who play peripheral roles in the movie, there aren’t any people in this film worth admiring. The good guys aren’t good; they’re quite bad. And the bad guys aren’t merely bad, they’re exceptionally heinous.
Gangster Squad is a collection of all the stereotypes and cliches of all the old gangster movies from the 1950s. It bears a striking resemblance to the old Robert Stack “Untouchables” TV show. All the characters are cardboard cutouts of characters from that era. The story is supposed be inspired by true events.
What struck me most about the film was just how stupid the characters were. Right away the Gangster Squad tries to bust up an illegal casino Cohen is running. They bust into the joint and the first thing they notice is that it is filled with crooked cops. There is an awkward standoff where the cops and the squad are pointing guns at each other yelling to put their guns down. Our heroes in the Gangster Squad don’t want to shoot their own cops and so run away, only to be pursued and captured. And they don’t get much smarter as the film develops. Even O’Mara’s best friend Wooters comments that they need to develop a plan of attack rather than randomly shooting up Cohen’s establishments – which they never do.
Greg, you’re right about the characters being derivative of old mobster movies. I’m sure that was done intentionally to capture the mood and dramatic tension from a bygone era of film making. Whether it works or not is subject to opinion. For me, the ambiance is effective and the film is sleek, stylish, and smart.
But I had one very major problem with Gangster Squad: It is a grim glorification of guns and spattered blood. What exactly is the moral message here? That the end justifies the means? Our heroes, Bill Parker and John O’Mara, decide that if you can’t beat’em, join’em. So O’Mara’s group of rogue cops become about as bad as the mobsters themselves. The take-home message appears to be that violence and thuggery are always the solution to societal conflicts. This leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Gangster Squad is almost completely void of true heroes who do the right thing.
I hear you, but I think the message was a different one. With all the World War II references (O’Mara is called “sarge” by his followers because he was a sergeant in the war, e.g.) I believe the message is “not all Hitlers are in Germany.” I also think that the message is that it takes a rugged individualist like the kind that won the war to keep the peace back home.
This movie is rated R and the body count is easily lower than other films we’ve seen this summer (witness World War Z). It’s just that rather than have all the violence be bloodless (ala The Lone Ranger), Gangster Squad was up front with it. This was a bad time for Los Angeles and Sean Penn’s Mickey Cohen was a very bad guy who didn’t have any trouble getting his hands dirty. I was okay with the level of violence in this film.
With so many school shootings, random shootings, and gun-related deaths in American society, I’m becoming increasingly critical of Hollywood’s obsession with guns. It’s especially hypocritical of the liberal Hollywood elite, most of whom are in favor of gun control, to make millions in portraying such gratuitous gun violence.
Gangster Squad is a film that I would characterize as pure cinematic darkness with style. The movie is wonderfully crafted but the preponderance of dark, violent characters, even among the so-called heroes, makes much of it depressing and disturbing to watch. I award this grisly film 2 Reels out of 5. As I’ve noted, the heroes are barbaric thugs themselves, hardly showing any change except for the worse. I did admire Josh Brolin doing his best Tommy Lee Jones imitation, however. I give the heroes 2 Heroes out of 5.
I was favorably impressed with Gangster Squad (and I don’t look to Hollywood to set social standards). It took me back to my childhood days watching gangster films and TV shows of the 1950s. It was a very slick production bringing modern cinematic techniques (like Bullet Time) to bear on a classic story. The actors were convincing in their roles. Sean Penn never looked so demonic. And, like you, I enjoyed Josh Brolin’s brooding if not intellectual Sergeant O’Mara. Emma Stone was hot and Mirielle Enos was smart. I had enough of a good time that I awarded Gangster Squad 3 out of 5 Reels.
I think this was a classic team-based hero story. There was the strong leader in the form of O’Mara, the jester in the form of buddy Coleman, the mentor in the form of sharp-shooter Kennard, the brains or wizard in the form of technology guru Keeler, and the “kid” in the form of Ramirez. Our hero starts out uncertain about his place in a post-war America and learns from his experiences that he doesn’t have to fight to be a man. I give Gangster Squad 3 out of 5 Heroes.