Gangster Squad Movie Review: Seriously Violent, But Not Worse Than 'The Iliad'


Another day, another uber violent movie shows up on the scene and questions like “what happened to simpler times?” and “will this make little Jamal want a pump action shotgun?” are asked.

This time around the movie is Gangster Squad. It’s directed by Ruben Fleischer and it comes out this Friday. Probably everyone is going to want a pump action shotgun when it’s released since Ryan Gosling has one in the movie ... but I digress. This is a violent movie, no question, and it’s been asked, is being asked, and will be asked in the future whether it is too violent, rather than just violent enough.

There’s a bit of a test for this, though it’s subjective and probably not effective at stilling this endless debate (cue Helen Lovejoy from the Simpsons yelling “won’t somebody please think of the children!?”). The test is this: a movie is too violent when the violence is no longer in service to telling a story and instead exists simply for its own gory sake. That rule is how a movie like, say, Drive, can be horribly, graphically violent without overdoing it, while a movie like John Carter can be too violent while being much less graphic, because the battle scenes are largely unrelated to the plot and unnecessary.

Please note that this rule doesn’t work if you are squeamish about blood and gore. If you are squeamish, the threshold for too violent is probably really low, but that doesn’t give you the right to dictate levels of violence to everyone else.

For those who like to claim that the amount of graphic violence is rising in films, and is probably indicative of our moral slide, or loss of innocence, I have been waiting for a long time to break out my favourite counter argument: The Iliad. Yeah, that’s right, from the Greek epic poet Homer. If you met someone who had read The Iliad you would probably not group them right away with the degenerates who like all these super violent movies that are practically snuff films, right?

Well, cover your eyeballs for this next bit, since here are a couple scenes from that classy bastion of the Western literary canon.

Book 13, line 615.

    Menelaos struck him as he came onward

    in the forehead over the base of the nose, and smashed the bones, so that

    both eyes dropped, bloody, and lay in the dust at his feet before him.

Or try this one on for size:

Book 16, lines 345-50 (Hammond)

Idomeneus stabbed Erymas in the mouth with the pitiless bronze. The bronze spear passed right through and up under the brain, smashing the white bones. His teeth were knocked out and both his eyes flooded with blood: wide-mouthed he spurted a well of blood through nostrils and mouth: and the black cloud of death covered him over. 

I’m pretty sure nothing in Kill Bill was that gross, friends.

OK, but the Greeks (slash Achaeans ... let’s not get technical) were a bloodthirsty lot and not likely to think of the children. The English, though, are a classy and refined society, right? And watching Shakespearean plays doesn’t make you a sociopath at all.

Enter Titus Andronicus. In this play not only does Lavinia get raped, mutilated by having her tongue and hands cut off, and then murdered by her father, but Tamora is fed a pastry made of the blood and bones of her two sons. And that’s just one, maybe the worst, example. Richard the Third murders young princes, Othello murders his wife, and on and on and on.

The Western Literary Canon, everybody!

But, OK, Steph, you say, these are the stuff of really old books, and stage plays that no one sees because they are afraid of old-timey language, and besides that in Gangster Squad a guy gets chained to a pair of cars and pulled in half.

Yes. Gangster Squad is going to be brutally violent. I haven’t seen it yet, and I don’t know how you, as an individual, feel about violence so I cannot tell you if it is “too” violent.

Violence in movies is sort of like spiciness in food. Everyone has individual preferences, but there are some dishes to which a certain level of spice is indispensable. Then there are dishes that just burn your face until you cannot taste whether you are eating chili, or just some stewed habaneros. Whether Gangster Squad is appropriately caliente for a movie about a bunch of cops who are just supposed to kill people to disrupt a gangleader’s activities, or whether Fleischer tossed in some jalepenos for those that like their storytelling with a side of blood spatter, or whether there is, in fact, nothing to this dish but a big ol’ pile of cayenne is what going to the movies is all about.