Given that director Ruben Fleischer’s only other well-known movie (I mean, does anyone even remember 30 Minutes or Less anymore?) begins with a zombie stripper’s breasts bouncing in slow-motion, I’m not sure who exactly felt he was the best choice to adapt Gangster Squad, a non-fiction crime novel about a very real L.A Police squad that stepped outside the law to act essentially as covertly sanctioned vigilantes to take down up and coming crime kingpin Mickey Cohen. I mean, especially given that these events really happened, you’d think the people involved in the production would want someone who could bring the most possible tact and realism to the story, otherwise something disastrous could happen, like someone’s granddaughter writing a viral blog post about how Hollywood turned her granddad’s life into an insipid popcorn movie with all the tact and realism of a Bugs Bunny cartoon and the movie overall being a disastrous failure both critically and commercially.
But someone behind a desk thought that was an acceptable risk and thank GOD they did, because Gangster Squad isn’t just an insipid popcorn movie, it’s the most entertainingly insipid popcorn movie in years. Due largely to the fact that nobody on the cast and crew seems to have any idea that what they’re making is basically a Sin City sequel in full color, and they’re all playing everything so adorably straight. It isn’t just camp, it’s the best kind of camp, the kind that has NO clue that it even IS camp. The whole movie plays out like a parody of itself, a laundry list of cliches and ham and it expects us to take it all seriously, which ends up making it honestly one of the funniest movies I’ve seen in years.
The story opens with two-fisted Irish cop John O’Mara, fresh back from WW2, and playing by nobody’s rules but his own. After going outside the order of things to bust some potential rapists (during which he cuts someones hand of with an elevator) O’Mara is instructed by Police Chief Nick Nolte to “Ghhrrrhrrrghhrrrgggherrrr”. Or, for those who don’t speak whatever the hell language Nick Nolte speaks in since he replaced his larynx with a broken lawnmower engine, essentially form a posse and run Mickey Cohen, the up and coming ruler of the L.A underworld, out of town.
The movie basically uses that simple premise to vault headlong into absolute lunacy, and it’s apparent barely ten minutes in that we aren’t watching history so much as an amphetamine-fuled nine year old’s idea of history. The posse O’Mara rounds up includes Robert Patrick as a handlebar-mustached, revolver wielding cowboy who is established early on as being able to shoot the ash off God’s cigarette, but only when it’s dramatically convenient. The black guy he finds (who tells us with no hint of irony that he’s the only thing between his community and utter anarchy) routinely whips out throwing knives (fucking THROWING KNIVES) to nail someone to the wall like the guy from V for Vendetta and Ryan Gosling seems to only be around to talk in a lilting accent and bang Emma Stone.
Whenever the movie can exaggerate something, it will, and with the kind of gusto that people around the time of the film would have called moxie, kid. Mickey Cohen, portrayed by the normally good Sean Penn, routinely goes into screaming tantrums in the manner of Daffy Duck, and his makeup makes him look like a long-lost Dick Tracy villain. Early on in the film when he lights a cigarette lighter, the slow-motion focus on the flame looks like a tiny atomic explosion. Similarly when someone flips a lighter closed, it isn’t with a simple flick of the wrist, oh no. They put their entire shoulder into it, and when some husky dame blows out a puff of smoke (from a cigarette she never, EVER lit herself) it’s with the kind of enthusiasm that probably indicates it’s a metaphor for something else. Mickey Cohen’s master plan, a fairly hum-drum scheme involving wire-transfers and book-making, is treated with the same urgent severity with which one would treat the fucking Death Star, and he opens the movie by tearing a guy in half between two cars, again with that spray of ludicrous fake blood that looks like something out of an Italian horror flick from the 70s.
And the movie never once indicates that we aren’t meant to be taking this completely goddamn seriously. Josh Brolin (who spends the movie scowling and looking like an Easter Island statue in a fedora) opens the movie with some hilariously earnest spiel about badges and creeds, and any indication that the movie’s tongue is anywhere near its cheek is nowhere to be seen, which makes the whole thing frankly funny as hell.
Then the second act rolls around and things get a little less funny. An otherwise good car chase (which ends with a firey explosion, naturally) is ruined by that ugly way digital photography looks when you film high speed chases with it, and Ryan Gosling’s one-nighter with Emma Roberts suddenly becomes a relationship without anyone bothering to tell the audience. Giovanni Ribisi’s character even meagerly tries to imply some kind of moral ambiguity to the Gangster Squad’s actions, perhaps implying that two wrongs don’t make a right and the squad’s methods in bringing Cohen to justice may just be subverting the rule of law rather than upholding it, an implication the rest of the cast and the movie itself then resoundingly ignores. For about forty minutes the movie suddenly becomes uncomfortable and hesitant, like that moment on a massive bender when reason penetrates the layer of mania around your brain and you think “Wait, maybe table dancing in a room full of people in nothing but a tu-tu and a lampshade looks kinda stupid”.
But then act three comes and the movie takes another shot of tequila and goes even crazier for the insane finale that doesn’t so much shy away from historical accuracy as it does bend historical accuracy over its knee and give it a solid spanking.
Gangster Squad is a terrible, terrible movie. It’s cliché, it’s hackneyed, it pushes no envelopes besides how many action movie stereotypes you can cram into a single narrative. It’s also insanely enjoyable, solely on the premise that it really seems to have no idea how much of a joke it is.