Gangster Squad: Heroes as Violent as the Villains

L.A. cops are righteous vigilantes in this history lesson turned into a colorful cartoon

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Wilson Webb/Warner Bros. Pictures

The original trailer for Gangster Squad, which premiered this summer, showed a gang of men strutting through a movie theater gunning down the patrons. During a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises in July, a dozen moviegoers were shot dead, 58 others wounded, by a freelance hitman who is scheduled to be arraigned today in Aurora, Colo.

Warner Bros. reworked the trailer for Gangster Squad, with its eerie coincidence of moviehouse slaughter and pushed the September release date back a few months, when no one would be thinking about the connection of film violence and firearm rampage. Instead, the picture now opens in the long wake of the Newtown school massacre, and amid intense debate about the proliferation and indiscriminate use of automatic weaponry. In America, there’s rarely a quiet time for a movie that loves what guns can do.

(READ: Corliss on the Aurora shootings and violent movies)

Gangster Squad turns municipal history — the late-1940s vendetta that Los Angeles Police Chief William Parker (Nick Nolte) waged against newly ensconced mob boss Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) — into movie fantasy. Its attractive cast and loving period detail buttress a vision of good cops who break the law to catch bad guys. Written by former detective Will Beall from Paul Lieberman’s nonfiction book, and directed by Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland, 30 Minutes or Less), the movie was recut after the Aurora killings. But it doesn’t stint on the gore. In the first scene, Cohen attaches a man to cars driving in opposite directions: let ‘er rip, and the fellow is cut in two, feral dogs lapping at his entrails. Later he orders a bald-headed man dispatched with an ice pick; the camera discreetly moves outside the room, to show a spume of blood on the glass-brick window.

(READ: Corliss’s reviews of Zombieland and 30 Minutes or Less)

I’m not building a case for the prosecution here: these scenes and other less ornate ones are filmed with precision and gusto, making Gangster Squad a fun sit for folks with strong stomachs. Indeed, the movie might seem too good for January, the garbage-collection month when studios dump their most disposable wares. But because it glosses over or romanticizes the vigilante ruthlessness at the heart of lawman sanctity, the movie shrivels in comparison with the great studies of municipal and police corruption in the City of Angels. This vivid, deadpan cartoon of sadism is Chinatown Lite, L.A. Inconsequential.

(FIND: Chinatown on the all-TIME 100 Movies list)

Cohen has come from Chicago to make Los Angeles into his own Pacific version of an East Coast or Midwest arsenal town. He already runs most of L.A.’s rackets and many of its politicians. Now he wants to control the betting wire throughout California. Parker, a rare honest police official, says no. He assigns Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) to create a secret squad of cops that will take down Cohen without worrying about such niceties as due process. The Sarge comes up with from a rainbow coalition of backlot types — a black guy (Anthony Mackie), an eager Hispanic (Michael Peña), a grizzled cowboy (Robert Patrick) and an electronics nerd (Giovanni Ribisi) — to supplement his handsome costar Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling). What Al Capone was to Eliot Ness’s Untouchables, Cohen is to the O’Mara and his posse.

(READ: Richard Schickel’s review of the 1987 film The Untouchables)

You could also say that Mickey Cohen is O’Mara’s Osama bin Laden. Gangster Squad opens on the day that Zero Dark Thirty comes to nearly 3,000 theaters, and in different ways they portray how America exercises its authority on people it deems harmful to the national weal. The more toxic the villain, the more drastic the tactics that may be used toward his capture. Of course there’s a difference. The CIA officer in Kathryn Bigelow’s movie applies waterboarding to one terror suspect; the mass killings are all al Qaeda’s doing. In Gangster Squad, the good cops do most of the shooting, in surprise raids on Cohen turf. Combat veterans of World War II, they are determined to end the mob man’s “enemy occupation” of Los Angeles, as if a police action were war-movie heroics. In a way, these are not Parker’s cops but bin Laden’s soldiers: defending their territory through violent resistance.

(READ: Massimo Calabresi on Zero Dark Thirty and the torture debate)

Wooters, a B-movie Lothario improbably romancing Cohen’s squeeze Grace Faraday (Emma Stone) in the gangster’s own nightclub, is at first reluctant to join O’Mara’s Magnificent Five. He’s spurred to action only when a winsome shoeshine boy dies in his arms after getting killed in a spray of bullets aimed at a Cohen rival. So now it’s personal. Yet the movie has many scenes of the Sarge’s team shooting their guns off — in Cohen’s nightclub and casino, and on a busy Chinatown street — with the inevitable collateral damage of innocent victims. Of course they’re just extras. In this and virtually every large-scale action picture, only the stars’ lives matter.

Though it attaches real names to its characters — to Parker, O’Mara, Wooters and later L.A. Police Chief Daryl Gates, here accurately tabbed as Parker’s chauffeur — Gangster Squad connects less as a chapter of Los Angeles history than as a gorgeous diorama of old Hollywood. Many of the city’s grand Art Deco buildings hover glamorously in the background, implying that L.A. is a town whose architecture, at least, was worth fighting for. Burbank, the suburb that Cohen owned while Warners was making great postwar crime films like White Heat, is portrayed here as an outpost of schizophrenia: Cohen’s ritzy casino coexisted with a police force depicted as rural yokels who might be running an Alabama jailhouse.

(READ: Manny Farber’s 1949 review of White Heat by subscribing to TIME)

In tribute to Maureen O’Hara, Greer Garson, Rhonda Fleming, Arlene Dahl and dozens of other star redheads of the late ’40s, the movie outfits its leading ladies in auburn tints. They don’t quite suit Stone, a vibrant actress who looks uncomfortable in period coiffure, but they look perfectly natural on Mireille Enos, who’s excellent as O’Mara’s loving, helpful, understandably anxious wife. Enos is one of the few performers allowed to inhabit recognizable humanity. Brolin is the Dudley Do-Right stalwart, Patrick a sagebrush renegade, Ribisi one step from a Woody Allen brainiac.

(READ: Corliss on Josh Brolin as George W. Bush in W.)

Gosling, disposing of his Sundance-movie mumbles but speaking in a strangely strained tenor, plays the blond dreamboat by making more preening eye contact with the camera more than with Stone. Penn spits out threats through prosthetic makeup so bizarre that he resembles Al Pacino’s Big Boy Caprice from the Warren Beatty Dick Tracy, but with less cartooning wit. This Cohen is a standard movie madman, not the cagey (and vicious) entrepreneur who lived in a Brentwood mansion, owned many legitimate businesses and, between serving two terms for tax evasion, charmed at least as much of the L.A. elite as he frightened.

(READ: Corliss’s 1990 garcinia cambogia reviews of Dick Tracy)

At the end of a climactic gun fight that expends more ammunition than was expelled on D-Day, O’Mara and Cohen, once a professional boxer in the featherweight class, throw away their weapons to settle matters with a bare-knuckle fight. It’s a faceoff — meaning that one man virtually rips the other’s face off — that could provide a corrective to both the NRA Minutemen and the producers of violent movies. It says that men don’t need guns to defend themselves. They can use fists and fortitude, like any good Neanderthals.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that the audience at the Dark Knight Rises midnight screening watched the original Gangster Squad trailer. Warner Bros. removed the trailer from other prints of the Batman saga. It was not shown before the midnight screening in Aurora, Colo.