The Heroes Who Failed
Gangster Squad is a missed opportunity. It has the trappings of a potentially great film, and it’s no surprise many had high expectations. How can a gangster film, of all things, fail with a strong cast, amazing costumes, interesting cinematography, and truly remarkable performances by Oscar-winning actors like Sean Penn?
Somehow, even with all of this, the film managed to get the details right while forgetting to create an actual anchor for the story. The plot oddly meanders from one cliché to another, with plot holes, ludicrous scenarios, and torturous dialogue left scattered like land mines in this imaginary world we’re trying to lose ourselves in. It’s like watching a student film that for some reason has a multimillion dollar budget and top rate cast.
Nonetheless, Gangster Squad has a certain importance precisely because of its confusion. The lack of a story and the shallow characters make it easier to focus on the cultural assumptions that underlie the film. More importantly, Gangster Squad styles its conflict as a political struggle – a war for the “soul of Los Angeles.” The characters’ ruminations on the nature of the city and the question of who “owns” it are far more interesting than the characters themselves. Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, and all the rest simply exist to look good in period style clothes and smoke a great deal.
The story focuses on one Mickey Cohen, a former boxer turned crime boss given a savage charisma by Sean Penn’s astonishing (and completely wasted) performance. Cohen has killed his way to the top of the underworld and safeguards his position with a vast empire of corrupt judges and cops. His masterstroke will be the creation of a wire service that will allow him to control all gambling west of Chicago, giving him the resources to complete his subversion of the state.
Unable to count on the system, Police Chief Bill Parker (Nick Nolte) unleashes Sergeant James O’Mara (Brolin) on Cohen’s operation, giving him carte blanche to recruit a secret team and gun down everyone in their way. This they do. After killing most of his henchmen and crippling Cohen’s operations, O’Mara is able to arrest Cohen on a murder charge and put him away for life. That’s literally it – though there are a few bumps in the road and halfhearted emotional subplots, this is a sprint to the finish shoot ‘em up.
Ruben Fleischer of Zombieland directs, and seems unable to make up his mind whether he is being satirical or not, as light-hearted banter alternates with the screams of victims burning alive and loving slow motion close-ups of firearms. Ryan Gosling’s Jerry Wooters has similar confusion, delivering even the lines that are supposed to be Grim and Important with a self-aware sideways grin.
Wooters has an especially idiotic subplot with Emma Stone’s Grace Faraday, Cohen’s “etiquette teacher” and moll. After an especially direct line, Wooters seduces (if you can call it that) Faraday, who is supposed to be in mortal fear of her “student.” The film then asks us to believe that the mutual degenerates are actually deeply in love. Wooters is usually the voice of caution within the Gangster Squad, but oddly seeks out death by taking the supposedly feared criminal’s woman. Amazingly, the film goes nowhere with this – it’s unclear if Cohen even finds out. As for Stone, her bland “Grace Faraday” is just another pretty girl in a pretty period dress, not someone worth risking your life for. She should stick to comedies.
Everyone other actor takes this film very seriously. Brolin grits his teeth so hard throughout he looks like Stannis Baratheon, Penn throws himself into an unhinged (even scary) performance, and the rest of the squad gives it a college try, treating this “gangster” film as a war movie.
Brolin’s John O’Mara is a man utterly devoted to his duty, even to the point of endangering his wife and unborn child. Wooters is a cynic spurred into action by seeing a young shoeshine boy accidentally cut down in the midst of a hit. Two token minorities join the cast to add diversity. One black cop, a knife specialist naturally, is the “only law” in the black neighborhood and has special hatred for pushers. The token Mexican is a kind of understudy to Robert Patrick’s Max Kennard, a quasi-legendary gunslinger (complete with cowboy hat) who has killed over 100 gangsters, but evidently believes in multiculturalism. There’s also Giovanni Ribisi once again appearing as the “nerd” of the group and the only one with scruples about the group’s illegal tactics. Predictably, he is later killed by Cohen’s men. None of the characters are particularly memorable, nor are their one liners.
Behind all this clutter of the film’s story is a more interesting mediation on the nature of power and society. Before Chief Parker gives O’Mara his assignment, he looks over Old Los Angeles. “Our forebears fought savage Indians and Mexican banditry to win Los Angeles – and now we’re losing her to an Eastern crook,” he rumbles. He complains about “Christian families” being caught in the crossfire of Cohen’s crime wave, protests he cannot officially do anything about it from within the system, and proclaims, “This is an enemy occupation.”
It would be a bit of a stretch to say that O’Mara is waging war on the smaller form of ZOG that Cohen has built. That said, it’s only a bit of a stretch. The film recognizes that the state can subverted, that law is dependent on the interests of powerful constituencies, and that the System can fail and be repaired only with the frank exercise of violence. There’s a hint of Carl Schmitt in this otherwise mediocre film.
Each member of the Squad has his own reasons for volunteering. Ribisi’s “Cornwall Keeler” is a family man with a young son. He’s a tinkerer, of the sort that no longer exists, and a veteran of World War II. We meet him as he watches the testing of a new rocket. As it streaks across the night sky, the product of that confident postwar America which once existed, he tells O’Mara “This right here, a brighter future, this is what we fought for, isn’t it?” He won’t stand aside and tell his son that he let them give it all away “to Cohen.”
Wooters conceals his disgust with what the city has become with drink and womanizing, but when he breaks, he breaks hard. He blows apart a disarmed suspect in the street with a shotgun. The token African-American expresses his rage at the heroin consuming his community “down to the bone.” He has no patience for the more vibrant practices of his racial kinsmen, impaling a drug dealer’s hand with a thrown knife.
The leader O’Mara is a berserker without a war, a man who only knows how to fight. Though he was apparently ex-Special Forces, his “tactics” consist of blindly charging in, guns blazing. Even Wooters points out that this idiocy will lead to the entire team being killed within a week, to which O’Mara responds, “It worked.”
Underneath this seeming death wish is a seething rage against those who offend his values. When the film begins, he beats three would-be pimps and rapists with his bare hands. He reacts to the deaths of criminals with indifference. He justifies his thuggish tactics simply as “doing what needs to be done.” Like Ra’s al Ghul, O’Mara recognizes that there are those “without decency” who “mock society’s laws” and must be fought “without pity.” It’s one of the great failures of the film that it fails to explore the deep seated rage that animates these characters, especially O’Mara. Instead, it just falls back on comic book silliness about a main character who apparently can’t be killed, regardless of his tactical stupidity.
As for Cohen himself, he is greed personified. When a rival gangster asks him what he could possibly want, when he already has so much, he simply answers, “More.” Cohen frames his covetousness as “progress,” the wave of the future. He sneers at Chief Parker as a “Bible thumper.” Having arrived in a Los Angeles that still has elements of the anarchic Wild West, Cohen will organize the vice and corruption into a system that will profit him. The greatest tragedy of this film is that Sean Penn’s performance has moments of authentic brilliance, channeling an even more demonic version of insane greed and pure id that drives characters like There Will Be Blood’s Daniel Plainview. In a film like Gangster Squad, it’s wasted.
Nonetheless, there’s a great theme for those who choose to see. Cohen is progress, the unthinking drive for material gain that underlies capitalism qua capitalism. The fact that his fortune is built upon corruption and filth is immaterial – the rise from rags to riches through any means necessary is at the heart of all gangster films, perhaps the most “American” of any genre. “Los Angeles is my destiny,” Cohen shrieks, determined to reforge the City of Angels into something like himself.
Against this, the Gangster Squad fights to preserve a way of life and a code, rather than accumulation. In the course of their raids, they burn the money they capture – the idea of taking some is never brought up, even as a joke. O’Mara and Keeler both bring up that they have found “paradise” in the middle class utopia of old Southern California, where ordinary workers can buy homes for their families in a beautiful climate. However, to defend this idyllic middle class lifestyle requires decidedly non-bourgeois behavior. Keeler gives his life. Although he justified his actions by saying he is fighting for his son’s future, his son is now without a father.
O’Mara’s wife begs him to abandon his crusade, saying that he will lose his family if he continues with this. He goes through with it anyway. He even beats Cohen in the end with an old fashioned bare knuckle fist fight, showing that an idea of masculine honor is more important to him than accomplishing the mission. Though the film takes the cheap Hollywood way out of letting O’Mara defeat Cohen and keep his family, the question of whether it is all worth it is left unanswered.
At a low moment in the film, O’Mara moans that if you sacrifice everything but gain victory you are a hero, but if you sacrifice everything but lose anyway you are just a fool. White Nationalists who have seen defeat after defeat and experienced the social ostracization, financial sacrifice, and the betrayal of friends or even family over politics can sympathize. Is it not better – more moral even – to tend one’s own garden, protect one’s family, and lead a quiet life?
Of course, the film does give a kind of answer, though probably not the one it intends. What kind of victory does the squad achieve? Keeler of course is martyred and Kennard falls in the line of duty, symbolically passing on his revolver to his Mexican. Aside from them, the film ends well for the rest of the squad – Wooters and Faraday (absurdly) marry, and O’Mara retires and rejoins his family and child. The police chief proclaims victory for the California way of life, but where is that way of life today? Southern California was once the utopia for the American middle class, but now it has been utterly transformed by mass immigration. Whites are fleeing the state, and the Golden State is turning into just another Hispanic slum writ large.
The Gangster Squad supposedly fought to prevent Cohen from “poisoning” paradise. While this particular Cohen may have been defeated, other members of the Tribe used the power of money to complete the subversion, until it led to the Third World conquest of the state and the elimination of the white middle class. This occurred precisely because white Californians made the choice to look after their individual interests and the interests of their families, rather than giving all in defense of a way of life.
Thus, the end of the film seems absurd, a paean to a California composed of middle class white families that has long since been destroyed. What is the point of preventing a Jewish gangster from controlling gambling and drugs, when even more ruthless gangsters control the government? In the end, despite Chief Parker’s warnings, they did lose Los Angeles to Eastern crooks – some of whom were probably named Cohen too.
Still, the film offers a solution. Gangster Squad, despite itself, shows us there is a force that can overcome a broken system and the power of gold. That power is the Männerbund, committed to something beyond material gain, beyond prestige, and even beyond family. The system is ultimately dependent on force, and men with values higher than money can do things that the corrupt cannot conceive. As Jean Raspail said in Camp of the Saints, “Violence is all the attacked minority has to fight back with.”
Gangster Squad is not a great movie, but it raises great questions and is worth seeing for that reason. Of course, our struggle is not with some local pimp or drug dealer, but an all-encompassing tyranny that mandates our genocide. The “Gangster Squad” of our liberation will be closer to the Northwest Volunteers than a group of clichéd cops.
There is another, more important difference. Those who engage in the struggle for white survival cannot expect a Hollywood ending. Our families may not understand, our very children may curse us, and most of the people we are trying to save may despise us. At least for a while. But only a while.
Just as the Gangster Squad ultimately accomplished nothing in the end, all those who take the “smart” choice of avoiding trouble die with their accomplishments scattered like leaves in the wind. Ultimately, it is the heroic, the sacrificial, and the “irrational” who drive history forward and make life for those “with decency” even possible. It’s not a bad lesson to take from one of the most disappointing films of the year.