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Gangster Squad, Tearing Through Tradition




By Matthew Sorrento.

Gangster Squad begins with Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), the King of Los Angeles, showing a different kind of power, as he boxes while another character describes him in voice over. Even casual viewers of recent crime films recognize the voice to be Josh Brolin’s, playing an L.A. sergeant ready to take down Mickey. With the perspective handed to Brolin’s character, O’Mara, we note the film shifting away from the classical gangster style to the coppers’ point of view. And hence, the eponymous Squad implies we have a police thriller. Should the hood lose the spotlight, the film’s not longer his.

With the establishment of the Production Code in 1934, the central gangster turned into a G-Man, now fighting interstate crime with the same kind of attitude. This change would turn most future gangsters into villains of cop thrillers, though we have our true gangster exceptions, such as Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America (1984) and Abel Ferrara’s The King of New York (1990). Both of these films amplify the gangster’s fall, recalling the classical style (if only the latter half) while assuring the end of the crime. The original change to G-Man cleared way for a gangster epic like Walsh’s The Roaring Twenties (1939), though this film, like Leone’s years later, signals that things have changed.

While the original gangsters were based on real hoods (mostly Al Capone), this recent telling adapts the true story less as an homage than to follow recent crime narratives with journalistic roots (American Gangster [2007], Public Enemies [2009]; the serial killer epic, Zodiac [2007]). Taking place in L.A., the city of noir, Squad uses the dimmed postwar milieu to its benefit. By the film’s time of ’49, the real hoods had long abandoned booze for Mexican drugs, gambling, and white slave trafficking – legacies that no move like the repeal of the Volstead Act could tackle. Squad‘s setting has left many to draw (counterproductive) comparisons to LA Confidential [1997], in which the crime is actually political, whereas here it’s purely visceral, a contemporary spin for a hyper-kinetic minded audience. The narrative aims to unspool like Tony Camonte’s gun tearing away days on the calendar, if more dizzying than thrilling. When some of the squad’s moves, like robbing a casino, leave you scratching your head over the motivation, you know you’re in trouble.

The recently reedited (and delayed) Squad, directed by Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland [2009]), delivers sizable violence right away – Mickey ordering a drawing-and-quartering by autos – though it’s all just bait for the avengers to take him down. World War II vet O’Mara, as the leader, isn’t opposed to removing a hand via elevator, in a film with a fetish for such machinery (look out for a blaze in a shaft, which involves another of the film’s obsessions, fire and, naturally, automatic weapons). Regrettably, we get too much time with the coppers, and with O’Mara’s nurturing, pregnant wife who questions the extent of his commitment. The romance of Ryan Gosling (who plays a cool gun the pack) with Mickey’s moll, Grace (Emma Stone), aims to draw the enemies closer though almost shoves Gosling back into the pretty-boy-lover territory (though his anti-natural performance is more proof of his range). O’Mara’s recent move to L.A. offers one of many references to Manifest Destiny, since the desert city is, after all, the end of the frontier, the home of noir that proved morally dry by Polanski and Towne’s Chinatown (1974). In Handbook of American Film Genres, John Raeburn notes how Walsh’s White Heat (1949) slyly opens on the western frontier, as Cagney’s Cody Jarrett robs a train, to move into a California gang-on-the-run tale. In Squad, the American mythology, with a mostly gratuitous westerner joining the pack, feels like a mixed generic bag failing as a recipe.

And still, the casino robbery lands them in a Burbank jail to set up a fun jailbreak scene, and even an obvious decoy by Mickey in Chinatown clears room for some fun. Though Penn is reduced to angry reactions from the Squad’s advance, Mickey shows the kind of hubris that’s in the genre’s DNA – he wants it all, and then kills with an obvious witness for the most dreaded element: an official warrant. Viewers complaining about the cartoonish portrayal and wanting Curtis Hanson’s Oscar winner again need to consider the source, and remember that – Paul Muni, anyone? – the former rules.

Matthew Sorrento teaches film at Rutgers University in Camden, NJ. He is the author of The New American Crime Film (McFarland, 2012) and a contributor to the forthcoming Wiley-Blackwell Companion to the War Film.

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