In 1949, Los Angeles was under the corrupt control of Mickey Cohen. As he plans to expand his influence across the west coast, a covert squad of LAPD officers team up to end his reign of terror once and for all.
America has a long-standing and often remarked-upon habit: when something makes it uneasy, it tries to film its way out of it. You could almost say shoot it’s way out of it.
A generation of disillusioned, damaged war veterans? Why not make a movie about some heroic vets who murder their way to mental health? Drugs problem? Why not make a movie about a bunch of vigilantes taking out a drug baron? Boiling problem with gun control? Why not make a movie where the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun?
Because Gangster Squad is, in many ways, a Hollywood-shaped balm, here smother a nation’s anxieties with celluloid glamour. In a safe, historical, LA Noire-looking world, Ruben Fleischer – and by association, America – is allowed to play out the morally monochrome, wise-cracking, sexy solution it wishes it had.
Like a fedora-flecked post-war vision of Starship Troopers, Gangster Squad is about as politically correct as a punch in the kidneys. Let us, for a moment, count the uncomfortable clichés; a cowboy and his Mexican accomplice, a licentious redhead, a money-hungry jew, a clever, possibly more intelligent wife rendered vulnerable and housebound by pregnancy, a slick black guy who prefers to throw knives than shoot a gun and a scene in which the one man who refuses to pick up a weapon gets his just desserts.
It has more petrol-burning, racial tokenism and female objectification than a bad day at the tabloids. It fails the Bechdel test with flying colours. And the guns – my god the guns. It is little wonder that the release of the film was halted after the terrible shooting in Aurora, Colorado. I haven’t seen a film that so shamelessly celebrates the intrinsic moral value of firearms since, well, John Wayne at least.
And yet, Gangster Squad is incredibly fun. To be able to make a film with that much violence – the film opens with a man being literally torn in half by two cars – with that sticky a moral compass and with so many moments of such ferocious, hokum good-ol’-boys schmaltz, that still makes the audience happy, is formidable indeed.
Because fun it was. I may be a sucker for any film that opens with a man in a white vest sweatily hoeing into a punch bag, but Gangster Squad is pure entertaining Hollywood crime glamour. White-tipped cigarettes, a ‘getting the gang together’ set up, red lipstick, clinking ice, a ‘taking care of business montage’, a showdown in old Chinatown, Josh Brolin’s mountain-like cliff of a face and, of course, Sean Penn’s crayon-sketch performance of the gangster Mickey Cohen.
Of course it’s ridiculous. Of course it’s hokey. Of course its politics are so right-of-centre it’s grinding along the crash barrier in a shower of sparks. But, if you’re too stupid, too tired or too lazy to watch the myriad of better LA crime films – Chinatown, LA Confidential, The Big Sleep, Heat – then what the hell, switch your brain off, bugger the substance and enjoy the style.