Gangster Squad plunges you into Los Angeles in 1949-50 in its first minutes. You watch as a tough-looking man watches a fresh young girl, just arrived on the train, is offered an audition by a seedy-sounding guy. She can’t believe her good luck and the audience is on the edge of leaping up to warn her, when the seedy fellow drops the expected bomb: yep, the acting she’ll be doing is horizontal, on behalf of local organized crime interests. The tough guy springs into action and rough, and violent, justice is done.
After the fight, we learn that the tough guy is police officer Jack O’Mara (Josh Brolin) and he has just broken a truce with gang kingpin Mickey Cohen, a truce that has been lucrative for many corrupt LA cops. Part of the tension in the film comes from never knowing which cop is straight and which cop is crooked, and whether the straight ones can stay straight or the crooked ones can straighten out. Lives hang in the balance.
A cop who won’t respect the modus vivendi with the local thugs is no use on regular duty, but LA police chief Bill Parker has another plan: let’s take a group of cops that are combat veterans (as many were so soon after the war) off-the-books. O’Mara takes command. They put down their badges and pick up guns, knives, blunt instruments of numerous kinds, inflammable accelerants, illegal wiretaps, and, in short, all the arms and accoutrements of a criminal gang. Their mission: just as Mickey Cohen’s gang has crushed the smaller LA gangs and driven the Chicago Outfit out of LA with remorseless, sickening violence, to bring the methods of total war down upon the head of Mickey Cohen.
For the next couple of hours, they do, to the delight of the audience.
The weapons are period-correct and are mostly used in period-correct fashion. The cops have revolvers, a 1911, Tommy Guns. One old timer, played by Robert Patrick, carries a single-action .45 LC. “I’ll dance with the one that brung me,” he says when offered an upgrade. The crooks have Tommies, too, but also a variety of mostly ex-Axis hardware. It seems like a P-38 in the hand can make any bad guy more sinister, something movie makers in that period knew well. And the pistols are fired one-handed, as they would have been; no one really pushed 2-handed pistol shooting until about 1960. (Well, the Imperial Japanese Army had taught a solid isoceles stance, but whatever master instructors it had had gone down in a series of forlorn hope banzai charges, and didn’t contribute to postwar instruction).
Due to Hollywood’s sudden coyness about guns and violence, it’s actually hard to find a still of the good-guy actors blasting away, but trust us: of the two hours of the movie, a good forty minutes is spent going BANG.
There are a few scenes that are so over the top with gunfire they approach inadvertent comedy, especially a climactic gun battle in a hotel.
The movie is incredibly violent, the sort of gratuitous, fetishistic violence that makes you wonder if the director is all there. He probably is, but he’s trying to ape Quentin Tarantino. Or maybe he isn’t (all there, that is). Maybe he pulled too many wings off flies when he was a kid. Excitable boy, they all said.
Actors and Acting
The performances are the equal of the fast-moving script, with an unusual trio of stars and characters driving the film. Brolin as O’Mara is the Hollywood tough guy that films have been lacking in the recent era of pretty-boy leading men. Ryan Gosling (speaking of)) plays the sidekick, Jerry Wooters. Handsome, weak and conflicted, his character’s ultimate loyalty is a question throughout the film. And Sean Penn tells us where his career is going — characteractorstan — delivering con brio an over-the-top villain portrayal. Penn’s Mickey Cohen is a viiolent, evil, sick monster; made that way by a violent, evil and sick childhood but now, in middle age, taking a perverted delight in the sickness. Either Penn is really a nasty piece of work and calls on that in the role, or he’s a much better actor than we’ve ever given him credit for before. At the final climactic battle of the forces of good and evil, by that point we were so full of loathing for Penn’s character that we not only wanted Brolin’s to beat the snot out of him, we didn’t want him to stop, and when he has Cohen at gunpoint you can feel the blood-lust of the theater audience calling, Caligula-style, for the coup de grace. Cohen, as played by Penn, is that kind of villain. Emma Stone has a great and complex role as the mobster’s girl looking for a way out — very reminiscent of Michelle Pfeiffer’s character in the 1983 Scarface remake, so much so that one wonders if it was the writers’ intention.
How accurate is it, and how PC?
We were surprised to learn that there is a non-fiction book, Gangster Squad, and that the movie hewed close to the book in many things. Because it felt like the story was a self-conscious attempt to make a Golden Age of Film movie. Naturally the real story is deeper and more interesting; the real O’Mara was a secondary figure in the squad; the real Cohen, far from being the wiry juggernaut of distilled evil that Penn delivers, was a podgy schlub, who finally went to Alcatraz not for murder, but because the IRS caught up with him on tax evasion. No one is ever going to make a movie about the perilous calculations of revenue agents.
But there really was a Gangster Squad, a group of cops that put their badges down and went to war with the Mob on a deniable basis. O’Mara and Wooters were real men. They were run off-the-books by the Police Chief, who set it up much as depicted by Nick Nolte in the movie.
The PC is, for a Hollywood outing, rather mild. The Gangster Squad must have a token black cop, and a token Mexican-American one. This is 1949 we’re talking about here, when letting negroes, as they were called then, into baseball was still a new and radical idea. Truman had just ordered the Army desegregated the year before — and the Army wouldn’t do it until after a badly-led segregated unit performed poorly in Korea in 1950. So the tokenism rings false (even though the actors playing the cops do a good job and their characters, especially Anthony Mackie’s Officer Coleman Harris, are plausibly written). Probably the most-PC facet of the movie is a tiny anachronism: the very low incidence of smoking. This was 1949, of course: airliners had ashtrays in the cockpits for the pilots, as well as in every passenger armrest.
The War Veterans angle
The movie makes a big deal about the fact that O’Mara, Wooters and the others were — as they were in real life — war veterans. They fought for freedom overseas, they weren’t going to let Mickey Cohen take it from them at home. For Hollywood to portray veterans as anything other than A) sick, mentally ill murderers or ticking time bombs or B) needy, dependent losers whining into the lapels of their old field jackets, is highly unusual and ought to be encouraged. They don’t always act like combat veterans moving under fire, but then, it is a movie.
One last element of concern
This movie is based on one of the oldest tropes in the Boy’s Book of Tropes that Hollywood writers and directors grow up (or don’t) reading: good men must do evil things better than evil men, to restore the good in the world. In this case, cops must throw adherence to the law away to beat organized crime, and they do. They kill wantonly, they beat and burn and destroy. They disdain warrants. They bug and wiretap to their heart’s content.
To put it in Special Forces terms: if you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’.
Again, this is common in movies. But we’re not the only ones who watch these movies; so do police, intelligence officers, and federal agents. You wonder if it gets into their decision loop. For example, the ATF’s Operation Fast and Furious was named after a series of movies in which a rogue cop wantonly breaks the law, half because he thinks he needs to to catch the bad guy (who, in the first movie, he then lets go), half for the sheer joy of it. In the actual operation, ATF agents supplied many thousands of weapons to extremely violent Mexican drug cartels, in an attempt to counterweight other cartels and — amazingly — to induce Congress to move on ATF’s preferred legislation by increasing violent crime. (Savor that distrtbing thought for a moment).
Recenty, a newspaper investigation exposed ATF’s Operation Fearless in
St. Paul,MN Milwaukee, Wisconsin, (thanks to a commenter for the correction), a disaster from end to end, which poured untold tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars into criminal coffers, paying so much for stolen goods and contraband that criminals energetically acquired more, and losing control, in true ATF style, of tens of thousands of dollars worth of materials and an unknown number of firearms. One firearm known to be lost and not recovered was a full-auto agency M4 that was in a case in an agent’s undercover vehicle. The (married) agent left the vehicle in a coffee shop parking lot and met another (married) agent for a sexual liaison; three guns were stlolen from the G-ride while they were off making little ATF agents. Once again, the ill-considered, ill-led operation took as its logo the logo of a recent, violent film (Stallone’s The Expendables).
While the leadership vacuum at all levels of ATF is terribly far afield for a movie review, one can’t help being concerned with how movies that show noble cops reaching noble ends by very ignoble means impact the minds of those agents in agencies that do not have rigorous assessment and selection processes, and that do not bring agents up with firm and inspiring leadership. ATF is typical of many bureaucracies, in that “firm and inspiring” are not traits it seeks in leaders. (“Obsequious and complaisant,” perhaps).
But then, is the movie really the problem? This movie can have no negative impact on an agent in an agency that has good selection and assessment and, especially, good leadership. So to blame the directors or Josh Brolin for what some badged cretin does in a few years as “Operation Gangster Squad” is probably unfair to the moviemakers. They’re entertainers, not moral beacons.
We enjoyed it and think you will, too, if only for the period cars, clothes, architecture, and ambience (Angelenos in particular will love that, although they’ll weep at the uncongested streets). We did check out Rotten Tomatoes to see what the media’s critics, and they hated it (33%), but most of their hate seems to be concern-trolling over the violence. (Hollywood has lost the art of making a character look evil or tough unless he can dismember somebody, though, so what’re you gonna do?). Audience ratings ran the exact opposite of critics — 2/3 pro,1/3 con.
Note: Saturday Matinee 2013 No. 4 (corrected) never went up due to the reviewer having a heart attack in the middle of the film. When he went to resume the paused DVD after recovery, the DVD had been ruined and we haven’t gotten to the end of that film yet. Sometimes life happens when you’re making other plans.