I’ve long enjoyed Los Angeles as a setting for crime movies or novels, especially ones set just after World War II. It’s not my favorite, on account of New York between the ’60s and ’80s being the best setting for everything, but it’s up there. The way it sprawls, the cities that make up what we think of as Los Angeles and their own little cultures and legends, the interstates, the desert, the mountains… I can’t get enough of Los Angeles. It’s beautiful.
With the exception of going to LA whenever I can to visit friends, though, my LA experience is limited to movies, music, and books. Which is cool, yeah, but that’s pop culture, right? It isn’t true. It might be accurate, but it isn’t real. My friend Tucker put me onto this fantastic book a couple years back, John Buntin’s L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City. It’s really great. It’s a history that runs from the ’20s up through the Rodney King riots, and it really enhanced my mental picture of LA as a location and a culture. It almost retroactively justified my love of Los Angeles, in a way.
Gangster Squad debuted with a trailer that was something like this one:
They got me with the Just Blaaaaaaaaaaze!, Emma Stone as a cutie pie of a tired moll, Anthony Mackie, and Michael Peña. The rest is aight — Gosling was cool in Drive, Brolin is pretty okay, ROBERT PATRICK — but that’s what hooked me. All my friends who are smart about movies began each conversation we had about Gangster Squad with “Mannnnnnnnnnnn,” but I kept the faith, even after stories of reshoots and rewrites. Saw it release day, even.
I saw Killing Them Softly a couple weeks beforehand and didn’t really like it. I thought it was okayish, but a mess. But the further I got from it, the more I liked it. I thought about it a lot and finally got what they were going for. And now, I’m afraid I’ll love it if I see it again.
Gangster Squad is like that, but inverted. Here’s four reasons why.
Gangster Squad isn’t boring, but it ain’t new. If you’re going to it in search of spectacle, you will find it. Things explode while dudes walk away from them, there’s a posse up scene, there’s a plucky ethnic sidekick, and Ryan Gosling’s character approaches a shoot-out like life is cheap and he got bullets three-for-one at the gun store.
The weird thing about Gangster Squad is that you have to make a mental adjustment when you start watching it. I was expecting something in the vein of a knock-off Michael Mann or Tony Scott flick. Modern action and nihilism in an old setting. Instead, about ten minutes in, I had to readjust my expectations. There’s a strange noise filter over most of the movie, the dialogue is a bit much, and the gunplay is actually much more subdued and boring than I’d expected. I honestly had a moment where I thought “Wait, is this a weird period homage kind of movie and not a real movie? Why are they talking like that and why does it look like this?”
The setup is familiar, but one of the first details they reveal during the movie almost lost me entirely. Josh Brolin plays O’Mara (cool, Irish cop), a WWII vet (even better) who did some secret spy stuff during the war and is some kind of super-soldier (nah son). Ryan Gosling plays Wooters, another WWII vet (Wooters and O’Mara bond over the war at one point and it is the saddest, limpest thing since “O’Mara, you’re basically Captain America. Can you go kill some dudes for me, Nic Nolte playing Police Chief Bill Parker?”). Wooters is… dirty? Probably? He hangs out with mobsters, but he never actually does anything that’s dirty, so whatever. Some kid he liked dies in a shoot-out and Wooters has a change of heart and decides to start killing criminals. He also murders two criminals in the street immediately after but it still somehow a cop/allowed into crime clubs. Who cares. Emma Stone plays Grace Faraday, Mickey Cohen’s etiquette coach slash girlfriend. Great name. Flat character. Sean Penn plays Mickey Cohen like a Dick Tracy villain crossed with the Joker.
The rest of the cast are just sketches. Anthony Mackie’s Coleman Harris is good with a thrown switchblade (sure, okay), hates heroin, and patrols whatever they said the black part of LA is. Robert Patrick and his Sam Elliott mustache is an ancient gunslinger by the name of Max Kennard. Michael Peña’s Navidad Ramirez is obviously Max Kennard’s illegitimate son who is following in his father’s footsteps and has the best name in the movie. (#2 is Grace Faraday because it’s a classy classic, followed by Coleman Harris. #worst is “Wooters.”)
That’s all they are. They’re a brief sentence and a one-liner in a gunfight to remind you that they have a personality.
Gangster Squad mines a rich period of American and Los Angeles history, but mucks it up for no reason. Part of my interest was seeing how they’d fit an action/adventure narrative into the very real story of Mickey Cohen. As it turns out, the answer is “They’re going to rewrite the story of Mickey Cohen entirely.”
Here’s a short list of things Mickey Cohen got up to in real life: sexual extortion, blackmail, boxing, bootlegging, walking into hotels and just firing his gun to try and draw some dudes out, sold love letters to a dead man to the news, and owned a bulletproof Cadillac.
Here’s a short list of things Mickey Cohen does in Gangster Squad: talks about boxing, orders hits, looks menacing, sets up a telephone scheme, says “I’m God,” and I guess goes to jail shortly before getting out of jail in the ’50s so he can hang out with Billy Graham and them.
He’s a cartoon, a Hollywood villain, and is nowhere near as amazing or fascinating as the real Mickey. He’s just some goon with a lot of other goons under him. He’s boring. He’s not scary, or charismatic, or anything. He’s Sean Penn in eight pounds of makeup, and that just isn’t interesting, especially when compared to the real deal. Mickey was flamboyant and charming. Penn doesn’t rate.
It doesn’t help that the squad of super cops all have gimmicks like they were superheroes. O’Mara is Captain America, Gosling is good at walking between crime and law (note: he doesn’t do this in any of the movie), Harris throws switchblades with deadly accuracy, Ramirez is plucky, and Kennard is I guess so old that he only knows how to use revolvers.
I realize that having regular dudes wouldn’t make for the most exciting movie, but we basically had regular dudes in real life and Cohen was eventually put away. Regular dudes on the warpath against an overwhelming threat? That’s great.
Everything doesn’t have to be the Dirty Dozen, and when you jazz it up like that, you lose a lot of the texture that made that time period so interesting. Open corruption, hard-driving politicians and cops attempting to clean up the joint, and actual factual race riots in the precincts are way more interesting than “oh yeah, this guy can throw a knife really fast.”
They should’ve mined that, instead of just taking the setting and stopping there. Real life is already rich and it doesn’t need generic embellishment to be watchable.
I love Anthony Mackie and Michael Peña, but what the heck were they doing in this movie? I will check out anything that Anthony Mackie and Michael Peña choose to do, pretty much, but Gangster Squad was amazingly mis-written from their perspective. Outside of a joke about Ramirez’s heritage being the reason why no one will partner with him but the dude who is obviously his absentee father and the black folks in LA hanging out with other blacks, that’s the only attention given to race in the movie.
Jackie Robinson was doing work and getting hate around the time that Gangster Squad was set, but somehow a black cop and a Mexican cop can hang out with white cops in bars and don’t get crap from their fellow police on account of their skin color? Nah, son. False. I don’t need a movie-stopping break for a discussion of the black and brown condition, but don’t suggest that things were all to the good by omitting the ugliness, either. They threw in a racial slur toward Mickey Cohen and that’s about it. It shatters what little verisimilitude the movie has, because America was wild racist in those days, including and/or especially the police.
Their roles are actually pretty symptomatic of what’s wrong with Gangster Squad. Instead of including them and doing a little extra legwork to show how they fit into the culture of the day, they’re just included in the crew with barely a mention given to their point. Coleman Harris is anti-heroin, Mickey Cohen deals heroin, so of course he’d be down with murdering him. Really? No. That is straight out of a comic book. O’Mara wouldn’t have gotten stand-up guys for this gig. He would’ve gotten a bunch of bent cops with guilty consciences.
Instead, he’s got the most unlikely Benetton Brigade ever, a big fat dollop of untruth that’s stinking up the whole movie. It’s pretending to be race-blind, and that’s terrible.
Ryan Gosling has a weird baby voice. Maybe I’m late to the party or something, but I’ve really only seen dude in Drive and he barely spoke in that. But in Gangster Squad, he says a lot of things, some of which are actually pretty cool but most of which are just “Because the genre demands it!” nonsense. “Don’t go,” he says, as Emma Stone walks out the door. “Don’t let me,” Emma Stone says, in the least convincing delivery of her life. “Please leave,” I say, watching this movie and wishing it was over.
Gosling’s baby voice distracted me the entire movie. His voice is pretty okay in real life, as this youtube video I found by searching “Ryan Gosling” shows, but his voice in Gangster Squad is like a pinched and nasal cross between his actual voice and some kind of awful Edward G Robinson impression, see?
But he waffles back and forth between baby voice and real voice and it doesn’t work at all.
Props for that scene where he fires at a car that’s speeding away, because his body language there is impeccable, but that’s in the trailer.
There’s probably a really good cut of Gangster Squad that halves the Gosling/Stone scenes, jacks up the police brutality, and ends with the whole squad dying that’s really, really good. As released, though? No thanks.
You should read L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City instead, and then catch the television adaptation of it whenever Frank Darabont gets around to completing it. Gangster Squad is worth waiting for until it comes on TBS at 0300.