So, Gangster Squad showed up in my mailbox today, so I gave it a watch. You may remember the trailer. Awful, kaka poo poo movie. I mostly wanted to watch it because a former student of mine, Mireille Enos, is in it. She was in fact, great, in the small but crucial role of Josh Brolin’s pregnant wife. She was also the only character that brought something that looked sort of like humanity to the film; not actual humanity, because it was too bad a movie for that, but the kind of faux humanity that is the highest action movies ever aim for.
But Gangster Squad did include several examples of a new action movie meme I’ve seen a lot lately. Obviously, because it’s an action movie, the good guys are very good shots, and the bad guys can’t hit the broad side of a barn. So in scene after scene, the good guys and the bad guys would be shooting at each other, and bad guys would drop like flies, moaning and holding injured parts of themselves, while the good guys go unscathed. Oh, sure, occasionally a good guy sidekick character would die, so all the other good guys can weep and mourn and vow with clenched teeth how they’re going to devote themselves to getting the miserable scum who killed Joey.
The idea that good guys are marksmen and bad guys can’t shoot isn’t anything new. (The best example of it ever was in the original Star Wars, when Obi-Wan sees the damage done to Uncle Owen’s farm and says that it has have been done by Imperial Storm Troopers, because of the accuracy of the firepower. This about a group of clowns that can’t shoot at all). No, the new meme isn’t that bad guys can’t shoot, it’s that good guys can literally dodge bullets.
Have you seen this one? In Gangster Squad‘s final scene, for example, the good cops are coming after Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), who is holed up in a luxury hotel, protected by an army of tommy gun wielding thugs. The good guys consist of, like, five cops. They’re outnumbered 100-5. And their oh-so-clever plan is to walk up to the front door and start shooting people. That’s not a violation of civil liberties, not at all, ’cause you see, they have a search warrant. Signed by a judge. So everything’s completely copacetic.
So Ryan Gosling and Josh Brolin are advancing into the hotel. And this one baddie jumps out with a tommy gun, and opens fire. Right there, point-blank range, blasting away at Josh Brolin. Who responds by sort of ducking his head a little. And then plugs the bad guy mid-chest.
It’s the ducking thing that got to me. Apparently, it’s possible, when someone is shooting at you (with an automatic weapon, no less), if you duck at just the right time, you can literally dodge the bullets. I mean, I don’t know how else to interpret that cinematic moment. The guy is maybe fifteen feet away, point blank range, and he has a machine gun, and he blasts away. Josh Brolin ducks. And the bullets all miss. How else are we supposed to interpret that?
I’ve seen it in other movies. Chris Pine does it in the new Star Trek. Tom Cruise did it in Jack Reacher. Good guys have always been bullet-proof, but now, it seems, they’re bullet-proof not as a sign of their moral superiority, but also due to their superior, super-human reflexes.
Okay, this is all silly and we all know it’s unrealistic. But I do think some version of it drives some folks’ views on public policy. For example, one persistent thread I’ve seen in relation to Benghazi goes like this: “Obama could have and should have sent troops in. We could have saved the lives of those brave Americans if we could have responded, immediately, with Special Forces.” And this, of course, is Obama’s fault, not sending in reinforcements.
Well, former Defense Secretary Bob Gates (a Republican, let it be noted), addressed that very issue. We’re so used to movies, we’re so used to good guys beating bad guys against impossible odds, we have a, well, cartoonish understanding of real-life military capabilities. Cartoonish is the word Secretary Gates used, and it’s an apt one. Movies like Gangster Squad are cartoons. And cartoons can be amusing. But they don’t even approximate real life.
In the actual factual military, ops are planned, based on solid intel. And in movies, the good guys plan too. But their plans are always silly. Basically, the plan, in Gangster Squad, is ‘we’re going to walk up to the front door and start shooting. And eventually, we’ll work our way through all the henchman and kill Sean Penn.’ It works splendidly. But mostly because Josh Brolin has the ability to duck incoming bullets.
Even a movie like Zero Dark Thirty, which went to great lengths to get the combat sequences right, does romanticize battle some. But it does show how carefully real Navy SEALS train, and plan, and how meticulously they execute. It’s refreshing to see a movie at least try to get all that right. But Hollywood mostly doesn’t bother. It’s more fun to see Josh Brolin duck bullets. My guess is, he actually can’t.