by Scott Mendelson
I've long spoken of the irony of Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy being one of the most mature and adult comic book films ever released (essay). Despite its PG rating and primarily colors-centric art direction, it's rather violent and genuinely sad, focused on adult characters who deal with very adult problems. It is perhaps doubly ironic that Ruben Fleischer's The Gangster Squad (trailer), which feels at times like a loose remake of the 1990 Disney release, is so juvenile despite its grown-up cast and its very R-rated violence. It is cheerfully pulpy but childishly so. It turns the tale of a group of off-the-books LA cops waging war on gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn, going 'full gangster') into a simplistic adventure seemingly aimed at eight-year old boys. For much of its running time, it can't decide whether it wants to be a serious gangster drama or a kid-friendly action adventure (graphic violence be damned), before just giving up and becoming a glorified video game instead. Despite all of that, it is not a boring picture, filled with enjoyably bad acting, laughably cliched and/or corny plot turns, and pretty much non-stop violence. The Gangster Squad achieves a rarity in this hyper-aware age: It's genuinely so bad that it's (almost) good.
The plot is pretty simple. Mickey Cohen has immigrated from Chicago to Los Angeles and is killing his way to the top of the organized crime food chain. Standing in his way are a few honest cops, corralled by Chief Parker (Nick Nolte, growling his way through an extended cameo) and led by Sgt. John O'Mara (Josh Brolin, trying his very best as the proverbial lead), who have declared an unofficial war on the Cohen enterprise. The other cops rounding out his unit are the devil-may-care womanizer (Ryan Gosling) who has taken up with Cohen's not-quite-girlfriend (Emma Stone, who looks hot and makes out with Gosling but has little other purpose), the family man surveillance guru (Giovanni Ribisi, who plays the token 'Do the ends justify the means?' audience surrogate before his reasonable complaints are forgotten in the carnage-filled climax), the token black guy who of course knows where all the drug connections are (Anthony Mackie, as usual deserving better), the old-school gunslinger (Robert Patrick), and his would-be protege (Michael PeĆ±a, who has almost no lines). Of these characters, only Brolin registers as a fully-developed character, as the film initially frames itself as a story of World War II veterans having come home to LA only to find themselves required to go to war yet again on domestic soil. It is a rich idea that frankly befits a more adult movie.
Sean Penn is hilariously awful here, basically doing an R-rated version of Big Boy Caprice without Al Pacino's shadings and tragic pathos. Cohen is allegedly a favorite of the media and the politicians, yet he is so relentlessly violent and so socially uneducated that it's a wonder why anyone would work for him (a good 70% of his screen time is spent viciously dispatching his own men for various infractions). Whatever dreams Fleischer may have had about crafting a serious action drama go out the window as soon as Cohen shows up (which is in the first scene, natch). Ironically some of the best work comes from Mireille Enos (from AMC's The Killing) as Brolin's wife. She's actually giving more to do, especially in the first act, than Emma Stone. If I somehow doubt the idea that it was Connie O'Mara that selected the men using the kind of acumen that could have landed her a job in intelligence (I'm sure the film is about as true-to-life as Hitchcock), it works in the context of the film and Enos has genuine chemistry with not just Brolin but with Gosling in their one terrific scene together. Sadly Stone's character basically window dressing until she becomes a plot point.The rest of the cast does their best to maintain dignity as the film gets sillier and sillier, even if Brolin, Gosling, and Penn dominate the proceedings, making the rest of the cast fight for scraps. As for the 'Are we no better than them?' moral handwringing, it's purely for show, brought up by a single major character and then forgotten as soon as it's inconvenient.
Despite what I've said above, I can't entirely dump on a movie that, perhaps in spite of itself, is pretty entertaining. Yes, much of its enjoyment comes from the often humorous mix of 'serious drama' and often absurd plot turns and/or obvious character beats. And in this R-13 era, I must say that this may be the most pervasively violent big-studio release since Blood Diamond. I appreciated the many times the camera didn't cut away from the bloodshed, even if the reshot finale is full of truly abysmal CGI-blood effects. Speaking of that finale, it's pretty much where the film stops even trying and descends into full-blown self-parody. I don't know how the original movie theater shooting scene would have worked into the film, but the idea of movie theater patrons being gunned down by gangsters probably would have made thematic sense in a film that periodically acknowledges the collateral damage of crime wars (although there is a scene in Chinatown that seems to serve the same narrative purpose, even if it's sadly more conventional). The finale itself is a completely thoughtless gunfight that not only resembles a video game but resembles the final level of a specific video game (highlight to reveal: Stranglehold). Even with the compromised ending, this is a cheerfully R-rated genre entry, full of the kind of wanton violence and unapologetic blood and gore that seems almost quaint by today's standards. You can see where Warner Bros. could have cut for a PG-13, and I have to give them credit for not doing so.
The Gangster Squad is not a good movie. But it is that rarity in today's ultra-aware and uber-cynical age; a film so gleefully absurd and ridiculously cliched that it achieves a kind of skewed entertainment value. It has fine production values, even if you can tell that the picture was shot on video. The action scenes are relatively solid, and I appreciated a mid-film car chase that resembled a Mario Kart balloon battle mini-game. Everyone looks great and the film is at no loss for action and violence. In a weird way, Sean Penn's cartoonish performance capsizes any hopes of dramatic authenticity in much the same way Arnold Schwarzenegger's casting in Batman & Robin altered that film's entire dynamic. The finale is pretty terrible and I wish Warner Bros. would have just weathered the storm and kept the movie theater scene (at least it's something we haven't seen before). In the end, The Gangster Squad is a big-scale B-movie with moments of astounding stupidity mixed in with moments of earned enjoyment. It genuinely plays like a dumbed-down version of LA Confidential by way of Dick Tracy, and it may in itself be a commentary on how childlike even our would-be adult entertainments have become over the last 15-20 years. If you're an eight-year old boy, this may be your new favorite movie. And to you I say good luck sneaking into a theater this weekend.
Follow Scott Mendelson on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ScottMendelson