Review: ‘Gangster Squad’ is Brainless Fun

That sums it up pretty well, actually. Huh. I guess the review’s over. You can all go back to Facebook or Twitter or whatever. No, wait, please stay, we need you. I mean, whatever.

Gangster Squad (2013):

The Plot: BASED ON A TRUE STORY!!!1! Los Angeles, 1949. New York gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) has taken over the city’s crime, and is just a generally bad dude. Police Chief Nick Nolte (Nick Nolte) doesn’t like this, so he gets together a secret SQUAD to fight the GANGSTERS. This team is led by Tough War Hero (Josh Brolin), who is also an Honest Cop in a Bad Town. He is joined by Handsome Rogue With a Heart of Gold (Canadian national treasure Ryan Gosling), Cool Old Cowboy (Robert Patrick), Cool Black Guy (Anthony Mackie), Nerd (Giovanni Ribisi), and Cowboy’s Somewhat Bland Mexican Sidekick (Michael Peña, who is not normally bland). When they combine their fedoras, this ragtag bunch of boldly-drawn archetypes becomes…the Gangster Squad!

Again, the trailer should give you a really good idea of what to expect from this movie. It’s not trying to be smart, or even that good. Gangster Squad is about good dudes fightin’ bad dudes, with as little nuance as possible. And you know what? That’s not a bad thing. The world needs brainless action movies (not affiliated with Mindless Action Mondays), just like it needs the sun, or laughter. But before I get into just why this movie is brainless fun, as opposed to painful trash, we’ve got one more thing to cover:

At first glance, this movie has a really dumb title. But now that we’ve seen the trailer and learned that Gangster Squad is a slick, brainless action movie, “gangster squad” kinda makes sense, doesn’t it? It’s simple, and the word “squad” sounds pretty tough. That having been said, when I first heard about it I felt like there were better stupid titles out there. The top two on my list were Tough Guy Patrol and Fedora Unit Goon Busters, with Gangsta Squad: Blood Be Spillin’ When You Be Illin’ getting an honorable mention for being just the worst. Since I like the word “goon” so much, and since I am the Rooster Illusion, Gangster Squad shall henceforth be referred to as Fedora Unit Goon Busters, or FUGB when I get tired of writing it out.*

Now that we’ve cleared that up, let’s get to the heart of the matter: just what makes this brainless action movie tick? Why is it brainless? Why is it action? Why is it a movie? Why are we here?

Okay, so most of those questions have pretty straight-forward answers. It’s action because there’s a lot of stylized fighting in it. Gun fights and car chases and some good old fashioned knuckle-bustin’. It’s brainless, because, okay, we’ve seen all that before a million times, but also because this movie has no people in it.

To clarify: the characters aren’t really characters so much as very basic archetypes. The villains are Villains and the dames are sultry. The gangster squad’s motivation pretty much boils down to: “We’re tough guys! This is a war! We need to protect our women from bad guys!” Josh Brolin is stalwart and likeable. Ryan Gosling is charming and handsome. Sean Penn chews the hell out of some scenery, and seems like a Very Bad Dude. You like the people you’re supposed to like, and nod in approval when the gangsters get shot or exploded. Nobody has much depth, and that works just fine.

Who needs depth? Look at all these guns and hats!!!

Who needs depth? Look at all these guns and hats!!!

One of my favorite parts of Fedora Unit Goon Busters ‘ lack of genuine human emotion is that whenever one of the guys gets upset, he freaks out and breaks some furniture. So instead of feelings, there is much manly smashing of tables. Women cry, or throw the occasional plate. Real men break furniture.

On that note, some people might call Fedora Unit Goon Busters sexist. And sure, the gender roles are super old-fashioned, and sure, the female characters are one-dimensional. But seriously, who isn’t?

This is a movie for guys, and women who appreciate blood and watching dudes punch other dudes. Is the film, on its own, sexist? Perhaps, but the women are about as underwritten as the men. They just get less screen time. If you wanted to be particularly kind to Fedora Unit Goon Busters, you could commend it for adhering to “traditional” gender roles of the late 40s. Thus, any misogyny is historically accurate. Just like Mad Men! Except, not really. The good guys in this treat women well, in a lunkheaded sort of way. It’s the screenplay that keeps them down.

Still, I don’t think that FUGB wants women to stay in the kitchen or whatever. I think it sets out to create a violent, cartoonish fantasy of tough guys bustin’ skulls and savin’ dames, and I think it totally succeeds.

"I just want to take you to bed. And then protect you from bad guys!"

“I just want to take you to bed. And then protect you from bad guys!”

Does the film contribute to a larger trend of misogyny in the film industry? Yeah, probably. Does the fact that we need more movies with protagonists who aren’t strong white dudes mean that we should discount this movie about strong white dudes? No, of course not. It’s possible to enjoy something while still being aware of its flaws. But that’s a discussion for another time. Besides, now I’m deep into The Tuesday Zone’s territory, and if FUGB has taught me anything, it’s that no matter how many hats you own, no one is invincible. That…what?

Well, I’d say that about covers it. Fedora Unit Goon Busters isn’t a great movie, or even really a good movie. But it’s entertaining, and has a likeable cast. I don’t think it’s one you *need* to see in theaters, but there are worse ways to spend a Sunday afternoon (seriously, if you have to see it, see it at a matinee).

Please direct any questions, comments, concerns, recommendations, death threats, and fan mail here:

*Note to writers: that rule goes for every mention of Fedora Unit Goon Busters on this site, so think twice before tackling this one if you value your credibility.

4 thoughts on “Review: ‘Gangster Squad’ is Brainless Fun

  1. I’d thought about reviewing this when I saw it, but more or less came to the conclusion you did: this is the state of the industry, these movies will get made, and Fedora Unit Goon Busters is just a symptom. You know how many big popcorn Hollywood flicks follow cliches? All of them. I’d have used this movie to attack an entire system, and that’s totally unfair.

    Also, awesome review. Entirely spot on.

    • Yeah, that would have been unfair, although I do understand the impulse. And it’s good to point out the trend anyway, even if it seems like it won’t accomplish much. On the plus side, I think we’re getting more and more Hanna’s each year, so maybe our grandkids won’t have to worry about this stuff (they totally will, but maybe *their* grandkids won’t?).

      Also, thank you!

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