You’re watching a movie. It’s one you’ve been looking forward to seeing for months. You’ve watched all the trailers, read all the press releases, and even watched a back-catalogue of the actress’ other films. Besides, you love a good Western and that’s what this is. Wait…now they’re in space. Why are they in space? Wasn’t this a Western? It’s got a guy on a horse in it, but now they’re in space? You’re so confused right now. You want to walk out but that’s rude, and then it hits you in the face. Your popcorn that is. Because you’ve just had a eureka moment that’s caused the involuntary spasming of arms in exclamation. This was never a Western. It was always a Sci-Fi. And they’ve been dropping little clues throughout the whole movie that this was only going to end in space.
But before you cry that Hollywood has made off into the sunset with your money via duplicitous means, and swear off ever going to the movies again – just stop. Take a deep breath, because this isn’t about the movie industry lying to you (well, it is a little bit). This is about the movie industry creating new and innovative ways to tell stories. It’s about putting so much lipstick on the pig that, while there may indeed still be some pig-like features under there, you can’t see them through all that Revlon.
Introducing The Bacon
Gangster Squad, Ruben Fleischer’s follow-up to the 2009 hit Zombieland, has everything a big Hollywood blockbuster ought to have. A plethora of big-name stars (a lot of whom are very, very attractive), a great script based on a book that of course is loosely based on a true story, and just the right mix of explosive action and steaming hot romance. That mix sees Sean Penn play Mickey Cohen, a crook bent on taking over Los Angeles, while other A-listers play the cops charged with bringing him down. It’s The Untouchables with Josh Brolin playing Sean Connery and Ryan Gosling trading quips with Emma Stone, making him…a sexier Kevin Costner?
On face value alone, Gangster Squad is an unabashed Gangster/Crime film – hell, the movie is called GANGSTER Squad. Gangster movies are okay. There’s nothing wrong with them. But unfortunately ‘okay’ is not good enough in the current market. ‘Okay’ skips by and then is never heard of again. This is why Gangster Squad does something remarkably clever to ensure that it doesn’t just skim across the surface – another gangster movie drowning in a sea of Goodfellas and The Sopranos. It doesn’t let itself be a Gangster movie. Yes, on paper this thing screams Gangster film, but just because it quacks like duck and looks like duck doesn’t mean it’s not a pigeon in a very good duck costume.
It’s A War Film With Gangsters In It
The opening moments of Gangster Squad begin with a date stamp over a skyline. Los Angeles, 1949. And that is perhaps the best indicator of what this movie is, better than the label on the DVD casing; better even than the title itself. That date says a lot. It was a time where the world was re-building itself. When the Second World War ended, it left a much deeper mark than its predecessor. This was a war that featured both genocide and the invention of a weapon capable of wiping out entire cities in seconds. And we arrive in film full of characters with these sorts of things lurking in their back-stories.
Every member of Brolin’s crack squadron of guerilla cops fought in the war in some capacity. Gosling’s Jerry Wooters was a pilot. Brolin’s John O’Mara was an officer. And while it’s never expressly mentioned what role Nick Nolte’s Chief Parker served during the war, it is clear from his mannerisms and phrasings that he served his country in some respect. It is all of these little pieces of contextual information that highlight Gangster Squad’s true genre allegiances. However it’s not just War film in terms of the historical context and character design; the film literally depicts a war.
Like Taratino’s Basterds and Captain America’s POW revolutionaries, the ‘cops’ in Gangster Squad aren’t doing things by the book. They aren’t there to gather evidence and start an investigation into the dealings of Mickey Cohen; they aren’t even working within the law. It’s established early on in the film that O’Mara and his boys are not doing this as police officers, but as soldiers in a guerilla war. They don’t have their badges to help them and Nolte’s Chief Parker makes it clear that they will be working on their own to dismantle Cohen’s criminal organization from the inside out. A team of soldiers dispensing their own form of justice to bring down an enemy invasion. Now doesn’t that plot sound familiar? Doesn’t it sound like a story ripped from the trenches and front-lines?
Hatchetman (Mickey Giacomazzi): You can’t shoot me, you’re a cop.
The film is peppered with War film standards. Sneaking into the enemy camp to find information? Wire-tapping Cohen’s mansion. A midnight ambush in the jungle? Ambushing the drug delivery trucks in the backwoods of LA. Blowing up the enemies central base/communications centre? Bombing Cohen’s central nightclub/bank. The goal of the squad isn’t to capture but to destroy, something that cannot be done if they were cops in a crime flick. There’d be something jarring seeing police officers committing some of the acts of violence demonstrated in the film, something unsettling that wouldn’t necessarily get the audience totally off-side but would certainly make it difficult for them to be totally on side.
This is negated by removing their badges and making them soldiers. When soldiers shoot the bad guys in the face with a shotgun in the street (as in above exchange between Gosling and a nameless thug), it’s a heroic act. If a cop does it, we fall into a murky trap of seeing these men lower themselves down to the level of criminals. So while Brolin’s merry men start off of as men in blue, they’re more Band of Brothers than they are Cops.
What About Sub-Genres?
Who’s teaching you all these words? Are you reading over that guy’s shoulder again? That’s rude. And no I am not avoiding the question. What about sub-genre? Well we’ve got a bit of a noirish thing going on there, and there’s a love-story buried amongst the bullets. If anything though, this film is a War-Western. Yes, a Western.
Looking beyond the bleedingly obvious example (there is a character who wears a cowboy hat, spurs and shoots like a maverick) we can find clues pointing to the genre of the Wild West. There’s the setting for one. The film takes place in LA, which is situated on the west coast of America. There’s a lot of sitting around in empty bars in the desert. There’s a final shoot-out/showdown that is an excellent execution of a Mexican stand-off (a Western favourite), and like I said before there is a guy who wears a cowboy hat, spurs and spins his goddamn pistols. SPINS THEM.
But looking at it from a more serious angle, one of the staples of Western genres is that the hero is usually a lawman or sheriff (formerly or currently) who has an almost archaic sense of justice, a justice that does not line up with the rest of the society they find themselves in. John O’Mara is so old school he bleeds sepia. It is his staunch and old-fashioned methodology that draws the attention of Parker and instigates the main plot. His sense of honour and justice conflict with almost everyone around him, including his wife, but he can’t help himself. The film’s protagonist is a cowboy through and through, a grizzled lawman fighting on a foreign frontier while his brand of justice is slowly dying out.
So while on face of it, genre sounds easy enough to understand, it is a tricky beast. Good films often have several and some films have genres solely designed for marketing purposes, but one thing can be sure of: just because it’s dressed like one thing doesn’t mean that that’s the end of the story. You might have to peel back a few layers of lipstick to see what sort of pig is hiding underneath.
And as for that title, well I don’t think Cowboy Soldier Cop Squad rolls off the tongue as easily…