If I told you the city of Los Angeles was decided in a fist fight, you might be curious to know the rest of the story. It’s not true, of course, but you might be willing to hear me out. It’s sort of a romantic notion, sort of a childish one. In that vein, if I staged the climactic fight inside a gang of neighborhood children with their fingers and fists cocked into the shapes of guns and made them run at each other going “Ba-ba-ba-ba-ba,” and “Di-di-di-di-di-di,” and if in the midst of this ruckus two of the meanest kids around just whaled on each other, well, you might think the story I had to tell you was a little ridiculous. If I staged it a little differently, and put the kids in gangster costumes and replaced their pantomimes with tommy guns, the previous image would still stick in your mind.
What are movies for? Movies are for entertainment. They can tell stories or document real life or be in black and white or technicolor, but when the thing’s in the can and the acting’s all done, film is a business and that business is not always artistic. There is a child running around going “boom-boom-boom-boom-boom” in every man; perhaps even in some women; and to deny that murderous toddler is, arguably, to deny a very human urge to say “boom” to whatever life throws at you. Gangster Squad is the recoil.
The history of Los Angeles’ real gangster squad is not stirring material. Yes, there was a real Mickey Cohen and there was a squad of policemen who worked under the radar to put him away; they did install a bugging device in his home (posing as television repair men), and they did rough up his men, sticking guns in their ears and such. And it took a decade of illegal maneuvers on both sides to make progress. The most substantial bit of espionage the squad pulled was carving initials inside the casings of some of Cohen’s illegal guns – though when this evidence was brought to court the judge threw it out.
Gangster Squad is set in 1949 and compresses historical events into a matter of weeks. And why not? If the real squad was a long con, punching it up for entertainment’s sake is no great sin. It does disservice to the real men and women who dedicated their lives to putting a dangerous criminal behind bars and securing the West Coast against mob infiltration, but we’re talking “inspired by a true story” here, not a documentary.
We have all of the beloved archetypes: the clean cop who never knows when to quit, the old gun, the shady cop with contacts on the inside, the ethnic one, the young one, the smart one… And we have a villain who glowers and raves.
Criticism has been leveled at Sean Penn for his portrayal of Cohen as a snarling pitbull, and that is wrong. The real Cohen was an outlaw legend. Biographer Tere Tereba says that Judy Garland came to him whenever she had “problems with her husbands.” He was a friend of Frank Sinatra, a pimp, Bugsy Siegel’s wingman. His house was bombed. He drove a bulletproof cadillac, became famous in Hollywood for his infamy, and posed in 1950 in front of a wall plastered with his own murderous headlines. He was brought up in the Great Depression, rode the rails with hobos looking for work, strongarmed for Al Capone and staged robberies from Chicago to the Pacific. Like Capone, he was eventually jailed for tax evasion, first in 1950 (4 years) and then in 1961. That was the real guy, a figure of such wild character one cries “Only in America!” with equal parts fascination and fear.
Only in the movie, Cohen sentences his enemies and henchmen to ghoulish deaths, and eats his food with the wrong fork, and punches cops. That’s what’s on the menu. Common in the gangster genre is the scene of the big time boss consuming something, fresh meat, lobster, whatever looks pulpiest. Penn chews the scenery down to the bone, gulping gristle and fat and anything else he can sink his teeth into. Penn’s Cohen is a vicious thug; that’s how he’s written, and that’s how he’s played. To enliven this character with historicity would be a wasted effort. And it’s a good thing too, because the only rationalization for the gangster squad’s vigilantism is that the other side is worse. Boom.
In fact, everyone is played well in this film. Josh Brolin is great as Sgt. John O’Mara, a man who’s come back from World War II and doesn’t know how to stop fighting. Mireille Enos is a charming surprise as his plucky wife, one could almost say sidekick. There are no real weak links in the cast.
The issue perhaps is that this film is not at all concerned with the mechanics of how law enforcement actually works. A select group of cops given leave to operate without badges provides the filmmakers too much license. And so Gangster Squad is not so much about bringing Mickey Cohen to justice as it is shuffling its cast from action scene to action scene, only letting bullets hit them when it’s dramatically appropriate to do so. It’s a wonder that any lip service is paid to the rightness of prosecuting Cohen when by the end of the film his entire gang has been murdered anyway.
Setting aside artistic merit, if a film’s objective is to entertain, storytelling or plausibility can be sacrificed for the sake of the boom. But entertainment itself is a subjective factor. An audience can only watch so many men be gunned down and spray CG blood before they begin to wonder what all of this violence is for. For much of its runtime, that question lingers, but Gangster Squad makes itself clear in its penultimate scene, when its narrative devolves into a fistfight without a hint of irony.
We do not need to be slaves to our own history, but murder and mayhem without consequences is an eerie sort of entertainment. Even Los Angeles is more complex than that.
Gangster Squad (2013)
Directed by Ruben Fleischer
Warner Bros. Pictures
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