When I see a film, I usually respond to it with some adherence to the like or not divide, while maintaining an element of subtle appreciation for the opposite side. Soon afterwards, though, perhaps out of a need to substantiate my opinion and support it with near insane passion, I lean forcefully so far towards like or dislike that I plunge into the extremities. I don’t mean to and I don’t know if that makes people respect my opinion any more, but it certainly makes my opinions much more fun to hold. Puts me in good stead for arguing, too.
But I saw Gangster Squad this week, whose trailer I enjoyed very much, and it’s like now I don’t even know who I am anymore— I didn’t like it, but I am unable to convince myself that I hated it. In fact, I think it is actually quite a good film. But then wait— nah, it wasn’t very good. But it was okay.
Set in 1949, and a proud homage to hardboiled noirs of the 1940s and 50s the likes of Joseph H Lewis, Robert Wise, Billy Wilder and John Huston, Gangster Squad holds its opening in Hollywood, behind the famous sign which then read HOLLYWOODLAND, setting up the major villain as one Mickey Cohen, leader of the Los Angeles crime syndicate that’s pretty much handed LA on a plate by the majority of the police department. Sean Penn cannot quite pull of this mob boss, but he’s got the swagger down all right. I don’t know much about the origins of the story that it was “inspired” by, but director Ruben Fleischer and screenwriter Will Beall chose a good time to depict disturbance in the Los Angeles cultural climate, as 1949 was the year that the last four letters were removed from the sign and it became only HOLLYWOOD.
Good timing aside, Beall’s script and Fleischer’s direction are both, while not clumsily so, a bit forceful and obvious — particularly for the mood that they are attempting to recreate. Cohen gives orders for a man, shackled in chains, to be torn apart by two cars as they pull the chains and his body in opposite directions. Just like he orders the city of Los Angeles to be torn apart, never mind the ruin as long as he is in charge. It’s all a bit much. Also, a particularly great attribute of the noir mood of anxiety, repressed violence, and the lost civility of the returned soldier was that all these things were absolutely boiling on the surface of so many films, but hardly anyone ever directly talked about it. Gangster Squad spells it out in the first sequence, courtesy of Josh Brolin’s lacklustre, all too open and honest voice-over narration. Also by a line he speaks later, and while I’m paraphrasing, it pretty accurately goes something like, “We went to war and they taught me/us how to fight. Now I’m back I’ve forgotten how to be a civilian, and still all I know how to do is fight boo hoo man problems.”
I loved Ryan Gosling’s character, Jerry Wooster, as the hopeless comedic figure who is actually the unsuspecting (but then, totally suspecting) hero of the piece. Mostly because I love Ryan Gosling. Every character fulfilled a role that surely all film fans know by heart, and if not, then surely all fans of the more gangstery noirs and the later films to come in the 1960s. But perhaps my main gripe with the film, apart from the entertaining if not overdone finale showdown in which a hotel lobby Christmas tree is ripped apart by machine gun fire in slow motion, is Emma Stone’s character. She’s not a femme fatale. She’s not a beautiful innocent gal who gets dumped by the triumphant and dumped on Santa Monica Boulevard. She has no character development. We know right away that even though she’s Mickey Cohen’s “tomato” she will end up as Jerry’s lover, we know right away that she doesn’t really side with the dirty guys, and that she will, of course (and along with Jerry), turn out totally clean and save the day. It’s spelt out for us (and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, particularly in a very visual homage such as this). But give us some female dimensions, please! Even villainous, predictable dimensions.
I am not a fan of writing straight film reviews. I am not a huge fan of this film, although it definitely had its enjoyable moments, its occasional visuals that will stick in my memory, and some nice characters (and outfits) that I didn’t mind. It’s almost as though Fleischer tried to create a deep, dark world akin to Christopher Nolan’s Gotham, but keeping Tim Burton’s campy, cartoonish city in the mix too. Not a bad idea, if it had a few tweaks here and there. But more and more recently, as my time becomes more thinly spread, I have to think about pictures in comparison to others. And when it comes to 1949, I’d rather watch Joseph H Lewis’ Gun Crazy, with John Dall and Peggy Cummins as one of my favourite onscreen couples, for the fifteenth time. Or perhaps The Big Combo with a killer theme by David Raskin. And I think I’ll do that very soon.