Crazy, Stupid, Guns
By coincidence, this year’s Oscar nominations were announced just as James Holmes was facing arraignment for last summer’s Dark Knight Rises massacre. Meanwhile, adding to a confluence of events that were perhaps not entirely unrelated, gun dealers were reportedly having trouble meeting the demand for the AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, the weapon of choice for elementary school murders in Connecticut. It was time, I thought, to watch Gangster Squad.
Why Gangster Squad in particular? Because Hollywood’s peak season of self-congratulation for its art always makes me want to reacquaint myself with pure Hollywood product, and because a postponement of Gangster Squad had been one of the slighter consequences of the Aurora, Colorado, killings. As the trades reported, Warner Bros. had been ready to release the movie in early September 2012. After the killings, though, the studio chose to revise the virtually completed film, and scrap the existing trailers for it, in order to remake a sequence that began with criminals blasting into the auditorium of Grauman’s Chinese Theater from behind the screen, their machine guns blazing at the audience. That the decision to alter this scene was commercially wise in no way diminishes its tact and good taste. But there’s only so much tact that a studio can afford to exercise when it has invested a reported $60 million in a movie that needs to be brought to market. After the December killings in Newtown, Connecticut, Gangster Squad remained on the January release schedule. Audiences would just have to judge for themselves how much good taste director Ruben Fleischer had finally exhibited.
On opening day I bought a ticket, found a seat without trouble among my fellow paying judges and settled in for twenty minutes of trailers—that is, the film-industry context for Gangster Squad. What did I see?
Bodies being pierced, stabbed, shredded, beheaded and splattered like gore-filled water balloons in Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.
Multiple deaths from gunshot wounds, while a mud-daubed Johnny Depp talks to a horse, in The Lone Ranger.
Tom Cruise zooming around at the controls of a white metal sphere, zapping unidentified enemies (presumably extraterrestrial) into the title condition in Oblivion (because “there is no other way”).
Young women being abducted and sliced to pieces, again and again, until Halle Berry decides to fight back (there being no other way) in The Call.
Bruce Willis putting in his normal day at the office—setting off fiery explosions, smashing through windows and enjoying the heft of a reliable assault weapon—in A Good Day to Die Hard.
And assorted (if unimaginative) mayhem with shotguns, axes and Sylvester Stallone’s line delivery in Bullet to the Head.
By this point, I wouldn’t have been surprised if the reminder to turn off my cellphone had shown a disobedient caller having his hand and ear lopped off. I wouldn’t say I’d been inured to violent death; that would presumably take longer than twenty minutes. But I’d certainly lost count of the corpses well before Gangster Squad began, and so was not as impressed as I might have been when Fleischer tried to grab my attention at the outset by showing a man being ripped apart in a tug of war between two 1949 sedans.
Bear in mind that even as a post–Labor Day release, Gangster Squad would not have been anyone’s idea of Oscar bait. It does have some trappings of prestige, though, including a gleamingly stylish re-creation of post–World War II Los Angeles, a young director rumored to be ready for a breakthrough, and a more than respectable cast featuring Sean Penn (as a substantially fictionalized version of the high-living, publicity-loving crime boss Mickey Cohen), Josh Brolin (as the stone-faced police sergeant chosen to lead a covert operation against Cohen), Ryan Gosling (as the dandified, womanizing cop who grows a conscience and joins Brolin’s squad) and Emma Stone (as the live-in lover who recklessly betrays Penn with Gosling—maybe because she couldn’t get enough of him in Crazy, Stupid, Love). For fans of film history, even the Warner Bros. logo is an attraction, bringing to mind the gangster era of Cagney and Bogart.
Maybe the worst thing about Gangster Squad is that it does try to call up this history. With a hint of pride in its modern superiority, it imagines what the old-fashioned mob pictures might have delivered by way of full-bodied violence and sleaze had they been freed from the strictures of the Production Code. A nod toward nostalgia, a grandiose display of the arrogance of the present: this seems to be the whole program of Gangster Squad.
I have always accepted depictions of violence as integral to the movies. I have never accepted the notion that purveyors of violent images should be restricted for the sake of public safety—not when we’ve done so little to restrain the trade in deadly weapons. All the same, I find it hard to defend Gangster Squad as exemplary high-end product. Django Unchained may arouse all sorts of objections, but as a work of commercial art, it at least pretends that its bloodshed has a purpose beyond looking cool. By contrast, Gangster Squad and those movies in the trailers pretend to be nothing but non-Oscar business as usual—a large part of which, apparently, is meant to gratify a public appetite that I hope the producers have overestimated.
I would like to see a little more tact, and some effective gun control legislation.
In his last review, ”Waltz Unchained,” Stuart Klawans took on Quentin Tarantino’s latest.