Starring: the gangster gang

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  • Published 9.01.13

Okay, Sean Penn’s Mickey Cohen (enforcer for the Chicago Outfit, where he briefly met Al Capone) has thinner lips and no 5 ’clock shadow. But he’s got the scowl down pat.

And the film’s title might have rubbed Cohen a little raw: Gangster Squad.

He once called it the “stupidity squad” — a bunch of Los Angeles cops, he figured, who were too dumb to pin him with a real crime. So they would roust him outside his haberdashery on the Sunset Strip, or arrest him for using foul language, and couldn’t even make that two-bit rap stick.

But Cohen — showman, gambler, gangster — would have been especially pleased to see his film doppelganger looming above Wilshire Boulevard in west Los Angeles.

That particular billboard is near the spot where Cohen wound up in 1949, on the night when gunmen ambushed him in his Brentwood driveway, and he escaped by careening through the usually quiet streets, crouched under the dashboard of his Cadillac with one hand on the wheel.


He would have signed autographs, said Ruben Fleischer, who directed Gangster Squad, which features Penn as Cohen — battling felt-hatted cops played by Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling and others. “He would have been thrilled to see a movie starring him had finally been made.”

Fleischer has created the latest cinematic telling of the struggle between good and evil on the streets of Los Angeles, in a post-World War II era that was known for shady compromise between the two. To a point Fleischer and his collaborators — including the producer Dan Lin, who is a former Warner executive, and the writer Will Beall, an ex-homicide detective — follow that dark-tinted tradition.

Gangster Squad is inspired by a newspaper series in which Paul Lieberman, writing for The Los Angeles Times in 2008, uncovered the gritty history of a real Gangster Squad. It was organised informally but later institutionalised under police chief William Parker as the Intelligence Division. Beginning in 1946, its members were detailed to root out mob influence in Southern California, often by extralegal means, including warrantless wiretaps and rough treatment of suspects in alleys or on hilltops above Hollywood.

So the moral ambiguities are there. The heroes in this movie break the law now and then.

But Fleischer and company have also tried for something new. Their Mickey Cohen is not the historical gangster who inflated his celebrity by displaying his pet’s doggy bed in Life magazine and ran a pathetic racket that involved raising money for a planned movie (never shot) about his own life.

In Gangster Squad, Cohen becomes mythic evil, a Batman villain. His victim is Los Angeles, a glamour doll of a metropolis that is being strangled, like Gotham City in The Dark Knight series. And it is saved, but also sullied, by tommy-gun-wielding cops in scenes violent enough that the film was delayed and somewhat revised after the mass killings at a theatre in Aurora, Colorado, last summer.

“If we do this right, it’s a contemporary gangster movie,” Lin recalled thinking when he persuaded Warner Bros to acquire Lieberman’s series four years ago.

heightened reality of a film noir Los Angeles

Beall’s screenplay had already achieved celebrity status in Hollywood. In 2010, it made the Black List of best unproduced scripts. Ben Affleck and Darren Aronofsky flirted with the project, which became a priority at Warner Bros, as Kevin McCormick, another former executive of the studio, joined Lin and Michael Tadross as a producer.

Fleischer finally claimed the film, Lin said, by showing up with a visual presentation that captured the heightened reality of a film noir Los Angeles in which settings like the nightclub Slapsy Maxie’s could erupt with a glow to rival those digital billboards.

Penn was quick to spot the bulldog quality behind Fleischer’s mild front. “He’s a gentleman and a stealth brute,” he said in a recent email.

Central to the movie’s look, and feel, were those tommy guns, which the squad carried, but seldom actually used, in real life.

Brolin’s character is named for a real squad leader, John ’Mara, but he also incorporates traits of another member, Dick Williams. “He’d been a ranger in the South Pacific” who trained the young Marine Lee Marvin in jungle warfare, Williams’s son, Richard Williams, called Buz, said in an interview. When his father returned home, he gave the squad instruction in automatic weapons.

The guns, however, put the film in jeopardy last summer. Gangster Squad was scheduled for release in September, until the mass shooting in July (2012) at a showing of Warner Bros’ The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora changed the plan — and the movie.

A climactic sequence in Fleischer’s original version involved a shootout with machine guns in a movie theatre. Ultimately that scene was replaced with a newly written confrontation between the squad and Cohen’s operatives in Chinatown.

In the new scenes, things explode, but the movie-theatre gun violence is gone, and Fleischer, for one, does not miss it.

“In some ways it’s better,” he said of the revised film. After all, he said, some adjoining scenes were “kind of tommy-gun heavy.”

The additions help distance Gangster Squad from a grim present reality that arose again in the Newtown, Connecticut, school shootings. But they also keep the film connected to a Hollywood tradition that requires good and bad to meet with a bang, however things may have occurred in life.

Michael Cieply

(The New York Times News Service)

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Gangster Squad releases in Calcutta on Friday