Gangster Squad is the most violent Hollywood movie in . . . two weeks

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Sean Penn in Gangster Squad
  • Sean Penn in Gangster Squad
I'm away in Los Angeles, and for the past ten days I've been driving around under giant billboards counting down the days until joy returns to the land with Ruben Fleischer's Gangster Squad. It's the sort of frantic, out-of-proportion PR blitz that ensues when moviemakers realize they have a serious problem—in this case, that their brain-dead celebration of machine gun fire debuts amid a national debate on automatic weapons. Gangster Squad already has a history of being outflanked by events: the original release date was pushed back, and the movie recut, after the July 20 massacre at a multiplex in Aurora, Colorado, cast an unfortunate light on the movie's scene of characters firing from behind a movie screen into the audience. It's a pretty potent symbol for the debate that will (or should) ensue in the wake of the latest bloodbath: whether movies can kill.

Rehearsing the arguments for censorship of movies doesn't interest me, particularly because, in the last few days, I've been reading some of the correspondence that went back and forth in the 40s and 50s between the Hollywood studios and the Production Code Administration, the industry's self-created morality cop. Looking at this stuff is incredible, because you see how minutely this little board policed not only the onscreen action but also the movie's themes. Any bad behavior had to be punished by the end credits or the movie was a no-go. We're better off now with a ratings system, though if the MPAA had any nerve it would make an NC-17 mandatory for movies picturing brutal deaths onscreen, the same as it does for genital sex.

Gangster Squad is pretty gruesome: it opens with hoods having tied an enemy's legs and arms to opposing automobiles and pulling him in half onscreen. The sheer number of bullets expended makes it the most violent Hollywood movie since . . . uh . . . well, I guess Django Unchained was just two weeks ago, wasn't it? The real problem with these movies, though, is their mindset, because action movies now tend to operate on a single emotional principle: revenge. Payback is, must be, and forever will be a bitch. The movies have created the cultural phenomenon of the big payback—the endlessly hyped moment when the protagonist gets even—that lodges in the mind of a spree killer. We could eliminate all gunfire from the screen anytime we want. But the score settling is the clip that never empties. As Pat Arden, a former managing editor at the Reader, used to say, "You can't fix stupid."

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