Hollywood retells the true story of a group of cops who worked outside the corrupt establishment to battle a crime boss
Chicago, Detroit and New York are among the major US cities infamous for their mafia culture, but Los Angeles has been able to avoid that notoriety for the most part. One reason can be found in the title of Ruben Fleischer's latest film.
Gangster Squad, based on a book of the same name by former Los Angeles Times writer Paul Lieberman, is an inspired-by-true-events look at how a small group of police officers worked to take down Mickey Cohen, a Jewish former boxer-turned-gangster who tried to foment Los Angeles' underworld in the 1940s and '50s.
A flamboyant character who had shown up in other films, including Bugsy (1991), Cohen was a hard man who loved fashion, rarely wearing the same suit twice, and even owned a haberdashery; he cruised up and down Sunset Strip, and had stripper girlfriends. "He was a celebrity gangster," says Fleischer, Gangster Squad's director-executive producer. "He basked in the glory of being a notorious person."
Cohen was like John Gotti in New York in the '80s, Fleischer says. "You don't mess with him. After he got out of Alcatraz, he lived on his fame as a gangster in Los Angeles."
Top-billed Sean Penn is satisfyingly menacing as Cohen. As it turned out, Penn - who was born in and grew up in Los Angeles - knew people who knew Cohen and spent a lot of time talking to them. "Sean took the parts of Mickey's life he connected with," says Fleischer.
Penn initially turned down the role because of scheduling conflicts. The filmmakers then offered the part to Josh Brolin but he wanted to play John O'Mara, a police sergeant tasked with recruiting the other members of the gangster squad.
"[The filmmakers] went at Sean hard," says Brolin. "He and I wanted to do something together anyway, and even though we don't have a lot of scenes together, I'm glad he … ended up saying yes."
In fact, the only real scene Brolin's and Penn's characters do have together features a fist fight Brolin says took 12 hours a day, for three days, to get right. "It was a lot of training to get it right. Once you start fighting, you get into the adrenalin of the action and … you want to give it your all because that's what's going to end up on film. Doing that was much easier with Sean. There are not a lot of actors I know who I'd want to do that with."
Brolin's O'Mara is a recently returned war veteran fighting his own demons, struggling to get reacquainted with normal life and reconnect with his pregnant wife. Back on the police force, he witnesses the corruption that is rife throughout the ranks. He and his colleagues bring in criminals and book them, and hours later the same guys are back on the streets after Cohen's people pay off the officers. So when the police chief (portrayed by Nick Nolte) asks O'Mara to set up a squad to fight back, there is a sense of vigilantism, of rounding up the forces to take the city back.
Making up the small but deadly squad along with O'Mara are characters played by Ryan Gosling, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, Michael Pena and Robert Patrick. Gosling, whose Jerry Wooters is something of a reluctant recruit (the original sergeant was the opposite of that, he says), says he loved being part of an ensemble cast. "[Wooters] doesn't meet bravado with bravado," Gosling says. "Instead, he finds a way to be subversive. When you come in with a cast of characters, you see what instrument they're going to play, and what you can contribute. There was a lot of bass in the movie - maybe they needed a little treble to balance it."
Gangster Squad also has plenty of gunfire, car chases, explosions, heists, a love triangle (Emma Stone plays the sultry Grace Faraday, Cohen's paramour and some-time lover of Wooters), all set against the backdrop of one of the most interesting eras in LA's history.
The Washington, DC-born Fleischer was drawn to the story by his interest in history - his major at Wesleyan University - and his love for Los Angeles. "I've embraced this city as my home, it has a lot of history, and there's a personal connection to this place that is real, and not manufactured."
Still, the director best known until now for Zombieland (2009) had a bit of an uphill task getting the powers-that-be at the studio to give him the job. "I worked hard to convince them to hire me," Fleischer says. "At that point I'd only done two small comedies, and I don't think I was the most obvious person for the job. But once they decided to give me a shot at directing it, it was my job to put the cast together. I went to Sean Penn, and once he signed on, a lot of other people got excited to get on board."
Despite the City of Angels-centric core of the story, Fleischer believes the storyline and frenetic action will appeal across all borders. "For international audiences I think the movie functions on two levels," he says. "There's obviously the classic good-versus-evil, cops-versus-robbers stories, and everyone can relate to that struggle and the grey area between the two." Beyond that, fans of historical fiction will appreciate the film's authentic look.
"We did a really good job of creating the glamour of [1940s] Los Angeles," says Fleisher. "Just from a visual standpoint, it's fun for audiences, whether here in Los Angeles or all over the world, to see that period brought back to life."
Gangster Squad is action-packed - it has to be, with mobsters running rampant through the city armed with Tommy guns. In addition, "The gangster squad was known for fighting fire with fire," Fleischer says. "They operated outside the law … [they] had their own set of rules."
The movie is being released at a time when violence in pop culture is being examined more closely in the US. "It's a tough one," Fleischer says of the ongoing debate about how much of a role bloodshed in the media plays in real life. "Violence has been around a lot longer than movies have, and people have been doing atrocious things to one another from the beginning of time. I don't think movies or TV shows or video games create violence. I think that in America we have a culture of guns that allows people to perform violence in ways they don't do in other countries."
Still, a crucial scene had to be reshot months after the film wrapped, Fleischer says. In the original scene, five gangsters storm through the screen of a cinema while shooting. Because it was too close to the Denver theatre massacre that killed 12 people last July, Fleischer thought it would be too hard for people to watch, so it was relocated to Chinatown.
"We used the true story as a launch pad, but it's a fictionalised retelling of the story," the director says. "We want the audience to know it's not a documentary, it's a film that's here for entertainment. The characters are real, but we interpreted it as we wanted to. It's truly an action movie from start to finish and that's what defines it."
Gangster Squad opens on Thursday