Gangster Squad is not L.A. Confidential. It is not The Untouchables, although it borrows enough plot points from Brian De Palma’s film that you’d be forgiven for getting them confused. The reason why you can’t compare Gangster Squad to some of the better old-school gangster movies of the last few decades isn’t because it’s bad, it’s because you couldn’t possibly take any of this seriously. Either that’s the point, and it’s an awesomely cheeseball Dick Tracy riff for a new generation, or the filmmakers have such a wildly unconventional definition of quality filmmaking that their madness deserves to be studied in clinical trials. Either way, I guess I’m recommending that you see this film.
Director Ruben Fleischer has crafted in Gangster Squad a high-octane explosion of macho nonsense, complete with dual-wielded Tommy Guns, Josh Brolin hanging out the rear windows of cars while punching the passengers therein, and villains who completely catch fire, calmly finish what they’re doing, and only then remove their jacket a la flambé. The film, by the way, is based on the true story of Los Angeles crime boss Mickey Cohen, who was eventually convicted of income tax evasion (twice). I don’t want to give too much away here, but that wasn’t good enough for Gangster Squad, so instead they eventually put him away for a crime that, in real life, he was actually acquitted of, presumably because Gangster Squad cares less for reality than it does for elevating tough guys of the 1950s to Schwarzeneggerian godhood.
And I for one am thankful for that. Gangster Squad exists in such an over-the-top universe that no one could possibly confuse it for credible source material (at least, no one who actually deserves an “A” on their term paper). This is not a film about the realities of crime in mid-20th Century Los Angeles, it is a film about how audiences like to "think" crime was actually fought back then. Josh Brolin plays a tough-as-nails police officer, charged by Chief Nick Nolte to bring down Mickey Cohen’s operations any way possible, even outside the law. Brolin puts together a special unit of tough guys including streetwise Anthony Mackie, cowboy Robert Patrick, wide-eyed Michael Pena, book smart Giovanni Ribisi and pretty boy Ryan Gosling, and they walk into literally every situation guns a-blazing, caring little for strategy or personal safety. The fact that any of these characters survive to the closing credits can only be attributed to blind, stupid luck or the sheer force of creative will imparted by filmmakers who think that stand-up guys always come out on top, and “thinkers” die ignominiously.
There’s a place for that, damn it, and when the sweepingly operatic tone of the film supports it, this kind of braindead machismo is allowed to be a total blast. Sean Penn hams it up as Mickey Cohen, a James Bond supervillain in disguise, and after years of Oscar-caliber performances it’s refreshing to see him cut loose and actually have something resembling “fun.” His personality is so large and abrasive that the only thing you’ll want to do is punch him in the face, and you’ll be thankful that Josh Brolin is there to do it for you. Even the film’s dialogue is so jam-packed with colorful metaphors that any semblance of realism can only be interpreted as an accident. This is the Commando of gangster movies.
Gangster Squad was delayed several months to January, 2013 after the movie theater shooting in Aurora, CO, because the film included a shootout at a movie theater. That sequence has been replaced, and to Fleischer’s credit you probably couldn’t tell unless you were really looking for it. There were those who worried that the film’s Oscar-bait cast and period trappings would be ignored come Oscar time due to the release date switcheroo, but I can say with absolute confidence that no one in Gangster Squad was going to get an Oscar nomination for this, except maybe ironically. It’s not that kind of movie. It’s a summer blockbuster disguised as a “real” film, but it’s a really good summer blockbuster with memorable action sequences, fun dialogue and a playful reinterpretation of police brutality as completely justified as long as it takes place half a century ago, and the good guys all fought in World War II so theoretically they can do no wrong.
Moral responsibility is a non-issue in Gangster Squad. So is common sense. So long as it’s fun, and never claims to be important or realistic, I’m fine with that. Let these guys be heroes in white hats. I’ll be sitting here in my jammies, judging them morally and doing infinitely less with my life, fantasizing about stopping bad guys with throwing knives while wearing my dress blues because there are apparently no regulations against that kind of thing. This is historical fantasy at its most exalted and campy. And cool.