In the opening scenes of Gangster Squad, before one of the many sadistic executions that litter the film in the name of “good fun,” a character describes Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) as ‘rotten.’ It’s a rare moment of self-awareness for the picture, because this is a rotten movie. It is diseased inside and out, and its disease’s chief symptom is ugliness.
This is an ugly, ugly movie. Ugly in its tone, hovering somewhere between an Asylum take on James Ellroy and a Sweded version of The Untouchables. Ugly in its look, alternating digital night photography that doesn’t match with a teal and orange gradient with an Instagram sepia tone over the daytime scenes. Ugly in its depiction of women, which are either items to be fought over (as in the case of Emma Stone’s ‘tomato’) or dolls for glossy exploitation a la Criminal Minds. This is the type of film that offers an extended sequence involving the abduction and near gang-rape of an innocent, just-off-the-bus woman in order to justify the violent actions of its protagonist (Josh Brolin). The treatment of women here feels like writer Will Beall read how they were portrayed in books by writers like Ellroy and Megan Abbott, then copied the events without understanding the context. Ugly in its violence, which is bloody and brutal, yet with no meaning behind it. Ugly in its vigilante story and defense of guerilla warfare, which could be read as a defense of everything from the War on Terror to the employment of Blackwater. Ugly in the way it wastes a talented cast, many of whom deserve better pictures (Anthony Mackie) and many of whom are really trying to do something with the material (Josh Brolin and the rare bright spot that is Robert Patrick).
The film is ostensibly about a battle for the soul of Los Angeles, but cop and criminal, cast and crew choose to subject the audience to two hours of psychic violence. The film was famously shelved and reshot in the wake of the Aurora shooting. It should have stayed there, instead of one of those pictures film historians will look back on in fifty years as an unfortunate relic of a brutal time in the 21st century.
Gangster Squad. Dir. Ruben Fleisher. Wr. Will Beal. Perf. Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn, Emma Stone, Anthony Mackie, Nick Nolte, Robert Patrick. 113 minutes. Warner Bros., 2013.