Two millennia ago, Marcus Aurelius wrote that “the nature of good is what is right and the nature of evil is what is wrong”, implying that badness and its corrective are evident. It goes without saying that modernism has relativised such an apodictic opinion, but looking at this year’s Oscar nominations it’s clear that Hollywood remains fascinated, to some considerable extent, with identifying the noble as good and the bad as evil in a way that European cinema simply is not.
One could, for example, easily be forgiven for believing that Ruben Fleischer ingested this Aurelian tenet hook, line and sinker every morning before heading off to the set of Gangster Squad. There are good guys and bad, and no greys in between to indulge ambiguities in the perennially nocturnal post-war Los Angeles of 1949, where Sergeant John O’Mara (Brolin) of the LAPD is asked to gather the eponymous squad, a band of brothers operating under the radar to take down vile gangster Mickey Cohen (Penn). As a decorated vet, O’Mara has what it takes and knows what he’s fighting for. The end is good and justifies the considerably violent means, as he explains to an overly sensitive member of his team.
To prove it, he and his guys not only get the girls and the – albeit private – satisfaction of glory. They also get all the one-liners. These are delivered mostly by a jauntily hatted Ryan Gosling in the role of Sgt. Jerry Wooters, one of only two characters who very occasionally deal in doubt and provide a bit of light relief. One’s tempted to feel sorry for Penn. He’s a character actor without character, without backstory, manners, humour or luck, presented simply as the personification of criminal energy.
There’s always room for manoeuvre, especially in movies that operate, as this one does, so clearly within genre. Given the gangster context, such heavily weighted advantages take all the interest (and fun) out of this conflict, leaving us simply as recipients of accepted dichotomies.
Gangster Squad | Directed by Ruben Fleischer (USA 2012) with Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Sean Penn. Starts January 24