Gangster Squad – Ruben Fleischer’s good v’s evil. (film review)

Next year it will be thirty years since Brian de Palma made The Untouchables (I know!  I know!) one of the many rough parodies of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, which was made sixty-two years earlier. Gangster Squad is our latest incarnation in the long running homage (we even have the all-important massacre on the steps scene) to a very brilliant film that was a propaganda film, embroiled in the complexities of Russian Politics. These days, in all the remakes and polishing of Battleship Potemkin, we never forget that it is a propaganda film, however, like Facebook, its hard to separate the flashy new product from the originals sinister intentions. One could argue very easily the desire to heavily influence the audience using manipulative techniques has survived through the various incarnations from The Godfather through to Gangster Squad. Ruben Fleischer has a history in advertising after all. So the question for the thinking viewer is, what are they trying to sell me?

Gangster Squad is a lot like Fleischers very popular Zombieland – it has a great cast who do a great job, its slick and beautiful and just funny enough to take the edge of all that overt violence. It’s one of those films that balances itself between soft core violence porn and graphic depictions intended to distress the viewer. You can never fully tell if the joke is on you or if the film is laughing at itself with Gangster Squad.  It’s really funny in parts – I got a good chuckle out of certain moments, and its very paint by numbers so Fleischer’s intention to mimic the classic ‘Gangster film’ and in this case particularly The Untouchables and Battleship Potemkin , is impossible to ignore. I can see the film being very popular with main stream audiences, who might enjoy the overt references as if they were ironic or a parody.

And yet, like The Untouchables (and Battleship Potemkin) there is a lot of that sort of graphic entertainment value violence that Michel Haneke hates so much.  We are being fed this on a silver spoon just like Fleischer fed us the ‘Good Inside’ McDonald’s ad. That sums Gangster Squad up pretty well – its like watching a slick ad the whole way through.  As I said above, the question is, what am I being sold? American values of good v’s evil? Might is right? Men are indestructible when they are not cheating on their wives? I’m not sure what the message is here, which is either a huge relief or really really scary.

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One overt manipulation is the anti-political correctness of the film. I am sure a lot of people will complain about the senseless violence.  It looks subversive in a cheeky ‘I-don’t-give-a-shit’ way when comedy, shameless mimicry and heavy violence are combined to produce a slick major feature that will no doubt be very popular. But of course, this kind of film is just the flip side of political correctness, the other side of the same coin. It may be cheeky but it is not subversive. It may be formulaic, but it will be entertaining to an audience who haven’t really seen anything like this for almost thirty years.

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Eisenstien made Battleship Potemkin as a propaganda film, however he also used it as an experiment in his theories about montage. Soviet film makers at the time were experimenting heavily with editing and its ability to affect audiences and Eisenstien wanted to solicit the greatest emotional response from the audience. He wanted the viewer feeling sympathy for the rebellious sailors of the Battleship Potemkin and hatred for their cruel overlords.  One of the distinguishing characteristics of the propaganda film is clear definition between who is ‘good’ and who is ‘bad’ so the audience is left with no doubt about their sympathies. In this way Gangster Squad is a very conservative film.  We are left feeling deep sympathy for renegade cops of such high integrity they are above the law and can be trusted implicitly something theoretically we know is not possible. Villains are evil to the core – making a pact with violence as Gangster Squad defines Micky Cohen (Sean Penn). Glowing images of ‘cops on the beat’ at the end with Doris Day type lens-fogging lead us to believe we can trust the police (now, after Gangster Squad) as all bad cops will be wiped out by the good ones.  And of course the ultimate conservative message, that those who succeed deserve to and those who fail deserve to.

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Despite all the anxieties I’m expressing above, I did enjoy Gangster Squad and I know it will be fun for those of you who dig the genre, but not so much that you can’t enjoy a film that pokes a little fun at it. It’s a curious mix of pluses and minuses, and I look forward to reading around some of the other reviews to see what people think.

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