Director Ruben Fleischer is behind at least two films that gently parody while simultaneously pay tribute to popular genres. His 2009 film Zombieland is a conventionally self-aware film. It utilised a genre that audiences are accustomed to seeing endearingly made fun of while remaining respectful. The tone of the film was light, signalling to the audience that it was not to be taken too seriously. Fleischer’s gangster film Gangster Squad is an unconventionally self-aware film, which like the 2012 faux-historical film Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (Timur Bekmambetov) does not utilise generic conventions that audiences are used to seeing explicitly parodied. Most radical of all, Gangster Squad plays it completely deadpan. Not that it could be mistaken for anything other than a hyperactive exaggeration of every single trope and archetype from the gangster genre, but it never overtly winks at the audience. For casual viewers it may seem to be playing it absurdly straight, when it is doing completely the opposite and with audacious relish.
Set in Los Angeles in 1949 Gangster Squad embraces the pulpy crime films and hardboiled fiction of the era. Post World War II disillusionment met early paranoia about the dawning nuclear era, and the cultural landscape was grim and bitter. Film noir was always a cynical and dark (thematically and literally) genre, but 1949 saw the end of the first wave of classic noir films being replaced by the far rawer and more violent wave of B-grade noirs by the likes of directors such as Joseph H Lewis, Robert Aldrich and Samuel Fuller. Not only does Gangster Squad pay cartoonish tribute to these films in style and content, but it also tips its fedora at classic films from the era, such as Billy Wilder’s non-B-grade masterpiece Sunset Blvd. (1950), with direct visual references. Furthermore, Gangster Squad is aware of the legacy of crime, gangster and action films to have come since so there are also moments that seem to be direct references to films such as Dirty Harry (Don Siegel, 1971), Scarface (Brian De Palma, 1983) The Untouchables (Brian De Palma, 1987) and Lethal Weapon (Richard Donner, 1987).
The film is a gangster version of Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (1967), with a group of city cops forming an unclassified squad to obliterate a powerful crime syndicate ruled by Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn). Cohen is more like an ultra-violent version of one of the super villains from Dick Tracey (Warren Beatty, 1990) than the historical figure he is based on. The head of the squad is Sergeant John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), who is similarly more like an indestructible super hero. As the married and noble ex-army man who wants to clean up the city he loves, O’Mara possesses many of the characteristics of the more reputable type of crime film hero. Unusually Gangster Squad has two heroic masculine protagonists, with the other being the far more conventional down-and-out cop Sergeant Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) who is initially completely disillusioned and far too susceptible to temptation, which includes falling for Cohen’s girlfriend, femme fatale Grace Faraday (Emma Stone).
It is a shame that the second half of Gangster Squad does not consistently deliver the same over-the-top-comic-book style of the first half. Nevertheless, it is a fun ride that signposts right from the beginning that it is working on a very stylised level in a similar yet far less apparent way to Sin City (Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez, 2005). There is nothing clever about predicting what is going to happen in Gangster Squad because the film is so determined to fulfil every classic narrative development associated with the genre. And still there are elements of the story that do surprise. A lot of the humour in the film comes from scenarios that occur due to the squad being anything but a slick and effective operation. Lovingly pulpy yet honest and sincere about its intent, there is plenty in Gangster Squad for fans of the gangster genre to enjoy.