The opening title card of Gangster Squad says “inspired by a true story,” which is pretty funny, considering the movie immediately following it is Sin City meets Young Guns in the form of a Jimmy Cagney parody. As I was watching it, I couldn’t help but think “wait, wait, slow down, which part of this is the true part? Is it the black guy who throws knives? The evil mobster who says things like ‘I miss that red snatch!’ and ‘you know the drill,’ before he kills guys with a power drill? Ooh, or maybe it’s the lead evil henchman with a scarred eye, or the part where the cop and the bad guy drop their weapons to ‘settle it like men’ in a climactic fist fight!” Goodness, am I even going to be able to review this without a history degree? Books should have more slow-motion shell casings falling to the floor, I always say.
I haven’t read Tales from the Gangster Squad, the stylized non-fiction book by LA Times reporter Paul Lieberman (collected from his series in the Times) upon which the Will Beall script was based, but as far as I can tell, the true part of Gangster Squad is that some of the names and places are real, as well as a couple throwaway lines about Frank Sinatra and the idea that there was a unit called “the gangster squad” in the first place. The rest? Let’s just say… liberties seem to have been taken. I can’t help but doubt the veracity of a movie that begins with a fake-nosed Sean Penn laughing as he has an enemy torn in half by two cars pulling in opposite directions. “Do ya woist, Mickey!”, the doomed guy shouts, defiant until the bitter end, as eighties action movie logic would dictate. No need for empathy here! When underlings fail him, Penn’s Cohen has them shot, burned alive, murdered with power drills, etc., like the Darth Vader of Sin City, only without Frank Miller’s penchant for high contrast and constant crotch trauma. I realize “Mickey Cohen” was a real guy, but if we depicted Al Capone as a mustache-twirling evil-doer, cackling as he tied a swooning dame to the railroad tracks, what would the compelling part of that be? That it was… uh… inspired by… true-ishness? I don’t get it.
From the very beginning, the movie has a serious tone problem (from the opening title card, really). It follows the real-life exploits of LAPD supercop Jack O’Mara, played by Josh Brolin, who’s introduced busting up a brothel full of gangsters trying to get a runaway hooked on smack so she’ll turn tricks. Luckily for her, O’Mara busts in the joint just as they’re about to gang rape her (seriously, this shit is dark), kills a couple dudes on the elevator, and beats everyone up while the doe-eyed dame screams from her hiding place inside the closet. Lucky Jack hauls those pug-faced nogoodniks down to the station by their ears, only to get an earful from his gruff superiors for going after a Mickey Cohen joint, when he knows those is off limits, see! And we know this is all true because the movie says so. That it plays like Frank Miller felt up Dick Tracy in Robert Rodriguez’s bathroom is the… uh… icing?
Soon, rogue police chief Nick Nolte (whose useless character of an assistant, the movie makes a point of telling us, is Daryl Gates, as in, future OJ-riot police commissioner Daryl Gates) is tapping O’Mara to put together a special unit
of untouchables called “gangster squad” to take down Mickey Cohen and stop his “enemy occupation” of Los Angeles. O’Mara’s going to need a multi-ethnic movie boy-band if he’s going to stop a cartoon like Cohen, so he taps Anthony Mackie, a black guy who throws his switchblades like Lou Diamond Phillips in Young Guns, Ryan “Faceman” Gosling, who’s banging Cohen’s aforementioned “red snatch,” Emma Stone (fun fact: she’s a natural blonde), a brainiac nerdlinger played by Giovanni Ribisi, a sharp-shootin’ cowboy played by Robert Patrick, and the cowboy’s Mexican man-servant, Michael Peña, who gets to be comic relief on account of he’s Mexican. “Haha, it’s funny because he’s Mexican!” the movie seems to say, over and over. At least they didn’t make him the knife expert.
This is not to say the movie, cheesy and silly as it is, and ignoring the inherent ridiculousness of “inspired by a true story,” isn’t moderately entertaining. In fact, it’s perfectly watchable, the actors are enjoyable, and I could see loving it if I was 10, though I doubt most parents would want their 10-year-old watching a film with so much graphic gore and frank snatch talk. (Graphic Gore and Frank Snatchtalk being my favorite drive-time DJs). It’s not that Gangster Squad is horrible and you shouldn’t see it, it’s just that you’ll enjoy it a lot more if you know in advance that it’s going to be pretty dumb.
I was really trying to ask myself why I think it’s not hypocritical for me to say that this stylized take on true events is so screwed up and wrong while Tarantino’s is so fantastic. I truly wrestled with this until I came up with an answer, and the first sub-reason is, and I know I’m repeating myself here but it deserves repeating, Gangster Squad is presenting itself as a true story. It’s a movie that supposedly says what is, whereas Django Unchained is overtly concerned only with what if, and thus free to take more liberties in the service of catharsis. Catharsis is Django‘s stated goal, not truth. But the main reason Django gets a pass and Gangster Squad doesn’t, is that Django mostly uses the fantastic as a way to do something interesting, whereas Gangster Squad almost always uses it as an excuse for not doing something interesting. The whole Jonah Hill sequence in Django isn’t believable, strictly speaking, but you accept it because it’s funny and because there’s a kernal of emotional truth to it – it’s a nice “what if.” When Mickey Cohen responds to a sniveling underling saying “I swear to God, Mickey!” with “You’re talking to God, so you might as well swear to me” in Gangster Squad, it’s similarly not believable, but it’s also not particularly funny, new, or compelling. It’s a way of saying “get it? he’s a megalomaniacal gangster. come on, you’ve seen this before, don’t think too hard so we can move on.”
I don’t mind not thinking too hard if I’m going to get something out of it at some point, but this is more like a self-perpetuating Ouroboros loop of not thinking too hard.