Blood and Cliches
This early in the New Year, most cinemas are knee-deep either in highbrow Christmas blockbusters still hanging in there, or earnest, serious-minded Oscar contenders trying to build up some momentum ahead of the coming gong season. However, on the principle some people won't be interested in either of those things, a few unrepentantly basic genre movies have snuck out, as usual. Ruben Fleischer's Gangster Squad certainly qualifies as one of them, despite the fact that the size of the budget and the calibre of the cast might indicate otherwise.
This is one of those movies with no discernible ambition to do anything new; its success or failure has nothing to do with innovation and everything to do with the polished assembly of parts you have probably seen before (many times before, in some cases). It's 1949 and the rising power in the L.A. underworld is a ruthless ex-boxer turned gang boss, Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn). He has the town in his pocket, thinks he owns enough judges and policemen to make him untouchable, deals ruthlessly with his rivals, and so on.
However, the chief of the LAPD (Nick Nolte) is not about to roll over to this guy and assigns stone-faced veteran cop John O'Mara (Josh Brolin doing his Tommy Lee Jones impression again) to bring him down – using whatever tactics the job may require, none of that due process foolishness involved. In a slightly surprising development, O'Mara lets his heavily pregnant wife choose the other members of the team, which may explain why one of them appears to be a wild west gunslinger who's wandered into the wrong film. O'Mara's second in command is high-living maverick Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), who has a special connection to the case, mainly because he's knocking off Cohen's girlfriend (Emma Stone).
And you can probably write the rest for yourself: the Gangster Squad gets off to a shaky start, but soon gets the mob's attention, things go back and forth for a while, the Squad member who's basically been walking around with a bullseye on his face all film gets killed in a stakes-raising development, and so on. It is, bluntly, very formulaic and highly derivative, most obviously from The Untouchables.
Having said that, just because something is formulaic that doesn't mean it's incompetent, and the reason cliches exist is because they actually work. Gangster Squad is a professionally assembled film, it looks polished, the characters have something of the coolness they're clearly supposed to (they all wear fedoras – except the cowboy, who wears a stetson – and smoke like chimneys), and with a cast like this the performances are obviously going to be decent. The action scenes, which are frequent, are well-choreographed, and the plot does grip to some extent even though you always know roughly what's going to happen.
On the other hand, it would be nice for a film in this kind of hard-boiled genre to go beyond the basic requirements of the form – for instance, it's such a relentlessly blokey film. There are two proper female characters, O'Mara's wife and Wooters' girlfriend. The wife spends most of the film in either the kitchen or the bathroom, tearfully asking her husband not to go off to fight (obviously he doesn't listen to her, or there'd be no movie). Emma Stone as the girlfriend doesn't spend the whole movie in bed, but her role is largely decorative and a real waste of her talents. Both roles are secondary to those of the men, and we never really get a sense of them as people in their own right.
Then again, it is 1949, and this is a movie aimed full-bloodedly at a male demographic. Gangster Squad has had its release date shoved back by four months to allow a major sequence to be reshot – the original featured a gunfight in a cinema, which for obvious reasons you can't really put in an entertainment-minded movie these days. From watching this film, I can deduce that it is considered inappropriate to show people firing guns in a moviehouse, but perfectly okay to depict dozens of people being blown away by submachine guns in any other urban environment. What a curious and somewhat counterintuitive world it is we live in.
This is still a savagely violent film in places – someone gets literally ripped in half very early on – but the director seems, rather slyly, to have front-loaded it to some extent: a lot of the really intensely nasty stuff happens very early on, giving you an instant impression that this is an extremely violent movie, an impression which lingers even after the film calms down a bit. It's not quite as graphic as it seemed at the time, now I consider it, but this is still a really strong 15 and definitely not for the squeamish.
This isn't actually a bad film, and perhaps the fact I've never really been a particular fan of gangster movies is a factor in my indifference to it. It's solid enough genre stuff, but the best thing about it is probably the late-40s art direction and costuming. But from the talent involved, you'd be forgiven for expecting something rather more striking.
Those Best Picture Oscar Nominations Translated Into English...
The Oscars are, of course, more about industry politics and self-regard than the actual quality of the films up for consideration, and until you get your head around this it can sometimes be hard to figure out exactly what they're playing at with some of the nominations and suchlike. Bearing this in mind, as a public service I would like to present the full list of Best Picture Nominations, along with the message that the Academy is using them to send, whether consciously or not:
- Amour – We need to nominate at least one foreign film in order to remain credible and this was the first one on the alphabetical list.
- Argo – We are patriotic and care about our recent history.
- Beasts of the Southern Wild – We care about poor people. Especially when they are the subject of an art-house darling.
- Django Unchained – We are down with the kids.
- Les Miserables – We like films with singing.
- Life of Pi – We can read.
- Lincoln – We are very patriotic and care about our less recent history.
- Silver Linings Playbook – We are practically guaranteed to nominate a film where famous leading actors play characters with mental health issues.
- Zero Dark Thirty – We are very, very patriotic and care about the year before last.