It’s hard to imagine Josh Brolin playing a bigger lug than Tom Chaney, the dimwit thief whose murderous insecurity sets Joel and Ethan Coen’s True Grit into motion. Yet Brolin achieves this very distinction with his mind-numbingly blunt turn as Sgt. John O’Mara, the human battering ram at the center of Ruben Fleischer’s brutish genre pastiche Gangster Squad. Still, as O’Mara’s strikingly wooden voiceover narration helps introduce the film’s Cro-Magnon view of post-WWII Los Angeles tainted by crime and corruption, it’s clear that he’s just one of many caricatures populating this cartoonish gangster universe.
An ex-Special Forces soldier turned cop, O’Mara is tasked by his grizzled superior (Nick Nolte) to take down untouchable gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) before the East Coast heavy rules all of Tinseltown. O’Mara’s master plan is to attack early and frequently, leading a small unit of police outcasts into one ill-advised raid after another, rarely thinking twice about strategy or collateral damage. These men are, of course, a motley crew of diverse ethnicities and specialties: Anthony Mackie is a lethal streetwise enforcer from the ghetto whose weapon of choice is a switchblade, Giovanni Ribisi a nerdy surveillance specialist who leaves the comfort of suburbia to battle Cohen’s gang, and Robert Patrick an Old West-style gunslinger who comes out of retirement to lend his gun hand to O’Mara’s quest. Unfortunately, each character is but a hollow archetype from classic western film iconography, especially Michael Peña’s Mexican upstart, who’s relegated to servant status early on. Even worse, all of the supporting characters’ lack of depth suggests that they’re each as disposable to the story as the faceless innocents blown to smithereens during one sequence of stylized slaughter set in Chinatown.
With this roster of professional specialists at his disposal, it’s simply amazing (and sometimes comedic) how bad O’Mara is at leading them into battle. During the middle of one botched raid at a country western bar that involves a sea of movie extras and a few corrupt cops mixed in for good measure, O’Mara overreacts at the first sign of failure and screams “abort” before retreating as his helpless subordinates become engulfed in a flurry of gunfire. Yet the film itself never calls his asinine methods or awful decisions into question. Instead, his mindlessness is championed. After one especially devastating clusterfuck, O’Mara’s right-hand man, Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), even laughingly confesses, “You’re a bull in a china shop, Sarg, but we follow you anyways.”
This quote represents the moral and professional duplicity inherent to the problematic ideology expressed by this mindless exercise in gratuitous iconography; every one of Dion Beenbe’s lifeless frames is a slathering of high-contrast lighting and heightened color schemes evocative of 1940s noir. O’Mara’s stubborn quest to subvert Cohen’s growing gambling racket and thuggish intimidation tactics holds very little emotional weight and is simply a means to an end for director Ruben Fleischer to revel in the surface sheen of each glossy image. Neon signs illuminate slinky dames in red skirts, blunt objects swing through the air in slow motion as they crush tables and faces, and shell casings dance around each other like performers in a Busby Berkeley musical. During close-up shots, Gangster Squad is even more thoroughly aggressive, lingering on Cohen’s bulging biceps or O’Mara’s square jaw during fist fights, highlighting each man’s swinging knuckles as they break bones with thunderous force.
What does this kind of gleefully smug indifference toward heightened violence and brutality say about a film that had its climactic gunfight set inside a movie theater cut by Warner Bros. out of respect for the many victims of 25 year-old James Holmes, the man who went on a shooting rampage inside an Aurora, CO multiplex in July? Basically, that unsettling cinematic images can be notoriously excessive as long as they don’t echo real-life tragedy, or even vaguely reference whatever atrocity the paying public has on their minds during the latest news cycle. In this sense, Gangster Squad is a perfect example of Hollywood hypocrisy, something to be ignored diligently.