Gangster Squad: Trilbies, Tommy Guns and Tall Tales

11 Jan

Gangster Squad 1

(Warning: Some spoilers ahead)

Some crime films based on true stories aim for historical accuracy, basing their plots and dialogue on police interviews, court transcripts, and the accounts of those involved, while exploring moral ambiguity, the many shades of grey between good and bad.

Gangster Squad is not that kind of movie.

It’s clear, however, from the offset that Gangster Squad doesn’t really care much for history, subtlety or moral ambiguity. First of all there’s that title, which is like something a twelve-year-old would have come up with.

That said, so is this.

That said, so is this.

Within the first few minutes Los Angeles cop John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) is punching, shooting and headbutting his way through a brothel owned by Chicago-born mobster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) to rescue a young damsel in distress. After this, he’s called upon by LA police chief Bill Parker (Tom Waits wearing a Nick Nolte mask) to form a top secret unit to go after Cohen and his business interests. In other words, a Gangster Squad!

He assembles a team of maverick cops, including Ryan Gosling as a man hellbent on stealing every straight man and lesbian in the audience’s girlfriend, two vaguely anachronistic minorities (The Hurt Locker’s Anthony Mackie and World Trade Center’s Michael Peña), a techno-boffin (Giovanni Ribisi… of course) and a man who’s basically Wyatt Earp (Robert Patrick). So far, so reasonably believable – stranger things have happened – but if you know anything about the real-life Mickey Cohen, you’ll know that much of this film is about as historically accurate as the last reel of Inglourious Basterds. Or The Matrix.

In its cavalier attitude toward history and real-life characters and its more or less black and white take on who are the goodies and who are the baddies, Gangster Squad reminded me of Brian DePalma’s The Untouchables. Actually, scratch that.

Gangster Squad is practically a beat-for-beat remake of The Untouchables.

City living in fear of a hot-headed gangster, played by a veteran actor known for his ability to transform himself for each and every role?

Check.

Check.

Idealistic cop with pregnant wife called upon to form an elite task force to take down the mob?

Check.

Check.

Grizzled veteran lawmaker who can show the young pups how it’s done?

Check.

Check.

Inexperienced Latino rookie who the grizzled veteran lawmaker takes under his wing?

Check.

Check.

Geeky boffin who is a little out of place surrounded by all this square-jawed, cleft-chinned testosterone in trilbies, but who saves the day with his superior know-how?

Check.

Check.

I could quite literally go on. And on. As such, it’s impossible to write or even think about Gangster Squad without referring to The Untouchables, and of course Gangster Squad comes up short.

For one thing, it isn’t directed by DePalma. Now, I’m not one to slavishly bow down to the genius of Brian DePalma – the man hasn’t made a good movie in almost 20 years – but with The Untouchables he was on fire. The Battleship Potemkin inspired shootout at the station is a masterclass in action and suspense, and the death of Sean Connery’s Malone is a real fist-in-mouth heart-breaker of a scene.

Seriously... Some kids bawled over 'Watership Down'. For me, it was this. Every. Single. Time.

Seriously… Some kids bawled over ‘Watership Down’. For me, it was this. Every. Single. Time.

More than that, Gangster Squad’s script isn’t by David Mamet. Mamet was The Untouchables‘ real coup, taking what could have been a lame rehash of a half-forgotten 1960s TV show and gracing it with brash and ballsy dialogue to die for. For instance, in Gangster Squad we have Penn’s Mickey Cohen demanding that his enemies be killed with, “I want them dead! I want their wives dead! I want their kids dead! And their dogs, and cats, and all their pets!” Meanwhile, over in The Untouchables, De Niro’s Al Capone bellows, “I want him dead! I want his family dead! I want his house burnt to the ground! I wanna go there in the middle of the night and piss on his ashes!” Nobody has ever scaled the poetic heights of trash talk like Mamet, and Gangster Squad could really have done with some of that.

I was about 10 years old when I first saw The Untouchables, and instantly it became one of my favourite all-time movies. Gangster Squad’s writer and director, Ruben Fleischer and Will Beall, are – I believe – around the same age as me, perhaps a little older, so I’m guessing The Untouchables meant a lot to them too. Perhaps if they had been a little less indebted to that inspiration and tried a little harder to steer the movie away from such out-and-out “homage” these comparisons wouldn’t have been so inevitable, and Gangster Squad could have stood a little better on its own two feet.

Having said all that, it’s still a whole lot of fun. A car-chase-cum-gunfight-cum-dynamite-flinging-contest is real edge-of-your-seat stuff, and the cast is great, from stoic, Eastern-Island-statue-with-a-pistol Josh Brolin to a scenery-chewing and battle-scarred Sean Penn. It’s a real shame some of the supporting characters, especially Mackie and Peña, aren’t given more screen time, as this makes their characters seem all the more like token gestures to a modern audience.

"Sergeants Wong and Patel have been assigned to another case."

“Sergeants Wong and Patel have been assigned to another case.”

Still, all these are actually minor quibbles. Complaining that Gangster Squad is like The Untouchables feels a little like complaining that the Jaguar XKR looks like an Aston Martin, as if this was a bad thing. And I don’t know about you, but sometimes I like knowing that the good guys are good and the bad guys are bad, and that by the end of the movie the good guys will have vanquished the bad guys. Don’t get me wrong, I love moral complexity as much as the next man, but far too many films and TV shows these days mistake moral complexity for a warped and mealy-mouthed relativism, so it’s refreshing to have a film that trades, for once, in moral certainties.

Plus, Ryan Gosling is pretty hot.

My score for this movie? 7.5/10

Gangster Squad is in cinemas now.

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