Warner Brothers, 2013, 113 minutes
Cast: Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn, Emma Stone, Robert Patrick, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribsi, Michael Pena, Mireille Enos and Nick Nolte
Screenplay: Will Beall
Based on Tales from the Gangster Squad by Paul Lieberman
Executive Producer: Bruce Berman and Ruben Fleischer
Producer: Dan Lin, Kevin McCormick and Michael Tadross
Director: Ruben Fleischer
Born in New York City, Micky Cohen (September 4, 1912-July 29, 1976) grew up in Los Angeles, where he drifted into crime at an early age. Despite his small size, he proved to be good with his fists, and briefly returned to New York City to pursue a boxing career. Realizing that he lacked the skill to succeed as a boxer, seventeen-year-old Cohen embraced the life of crime. Satisfying his love of fashion through robbery, Cohen’s indiscriminate preying angered numerous powerful gangsters, first in Cleveland and then Chicago. When Bugsy Siegel advertised for muscle to help him take control of organized crime in Los Angeles, Cohen returned home in 1937. Awed by Siegel’s style and wealth, Cohen gradually calmed down and became Siegel’s right-hand man. When Siegel was killed in 1947 because his investors in the Flamingo Casino thought that he was skimming money, Cohen succeeded him as kingpin of Los Angeles. Although he survived several assassination attempts by Jack Dragna, a rival gangster, Cohen’s flamboyant nature and failure to conceal his wealth attracted the attention of the IRS, and he was sentenced to prison for five years. Following his release, Cohen continued his criminal career. Unlike most leading gangsters, Cohen embraced media attention, becoming a national celebrity. Having failed to learn his lesson, Cohen was convicted a second time. Released in 1972, he developed stomach cancer and died four years later.
Shortly after the end of the war, Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) is building an empire in LA. One of the few honest cops who is willing to arrest people working for Cohen, Sergeant Jack O’Mara (Josh Brolin) attracts the attention of police chief William Parker (Nick Nolte), who asks him to recruit a squad of dedicated policemen willing to break the law to destroy Cohen’s operation. O’Mara agrees even though his wife Connie (Mireille Enos) is pregnant and wants him to stay out of trouble so that he will be around to raise their child. O’Mara recruits Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie), who is waging a lonely war against heroin in the black neighborhood; Max Kennard (Robert Patrick) because he is a fast gun; and Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribsi) because he is a wire-tapper. Kennard’s partner Ramirez (Michael Pena) is initially ignored because he is Mexican, but eventually forces his way in to the group. O’Mara’s friend Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) is disillusioned and rejects an invitation to the squad, but changes his mind when someone he cares about is a victim during a shootout. Meanwhile, Cohen has declared war on his former boss Jack Dragna (Jon Polito) despite the threat of retaliation from the powerful Syndicate in Chicago. Displaying an apparent death wish, Wooters starts an affair with Grace Faraday (Emma Stone), Cohen’s mistress. As the Gangster Squad becomes increasingly effective, a showdown between them and Cohen becomes inevitable.
The movie’s presentation of Mickey Cohen as a vicious gangster who rules over the city of Los Angeles until a small band of brave policemen decide to end his reign of terror has nothing to do with reality. It will take quite some time to list just the major inaccuracies in this film, so you might want to go to the bathroom first.
Mickey Cohen was a short, perpetually frowning ex-boxer, who had switched career tracks and become a full-time gangster when he was seventeen. A fondness bordering on addiction for ice cream and a pathological fear of germs meant that he had become a short, chubby, perpetually frowning gangster, who was endlessly washing his hands. Determined to have a more traditional villain, the producers cast an astonishingly fit Sean Penn as Cohen, and subjected him to hours of makeup every day to ensure that he was suitably menacing. Although the screen Cohen loves deserts, the script does not mention that he thought that ice cream was one of the four essential food groups and ate it with every meal.
Claiming that the city has been occupied by gangsters from the east coast, the fictional Chief William Parker recruits O’Mara to wage guerrilla warfare against Cohen, operating outside the law to destroy his operation. Parker is famous so he is made responsible for the formation of the Gangster Squad, even though the squad already existed when he became police chief. Moreover, the script grossly exaggerates the gangster problem, portraying the entire city as defenceless against a ruthless crime lord. In reality, gang violence threatened the city’s image, not the city itself. Several gangsters were killed during the period 1945-46, and the police believed that they had clashed with Cohen. Actually, the police had little idea of the inner workings of the underworld, they only knew that the sudden increase of dead men with lengthy criminal records meant that someone was trying to increase his territory. Fed up with the rise in gang murders, Mayor Fletcher Bowron told police chief Clemence Horrall to rid the city of gangsters, and he formed the Gangster Squad.
The fictional Cohen is unmarried and extremely territorial about Grace Faraday, his mistress, insisting that she reserve her favors for him alone. The genuine Cohen had married LaVonne Weaver, a petite dance instructor and model, in 1940, and she had proved to be the perfect wife, accepting her husband’s late-night escapades and the knowledge that he was frequently seen in the company of the attractive young women who were the necessary social lubricant for meetings with visiting gangsters.
An admittedly entertaining scene is the fictional squad’s commando raid on Cohen’s mansion to plant bugs, risking death if discovered by Cohen’s small army of guards. Despite his wealth, the real Cohen did not live in a mansion. Like many wives, LaVonne wanted a proper house at the end of the war, so Cohen had a house built in Brentwood, the hottest new neighborhood. Unknown to him, the LAPD Vice Squad had ensured that every room in the house was wired, so the police were able to listen to his conversations. The bugs were unnoticed from April 13, 1947 to April 28, 1948 when Cohen’s gardener discovered the wire by accident. However, the Vice Squad had bugged his house to improve their ability to blackmail him, not arrest him, but the Vice detectives had contracted the work to a private electronics expert, so the whole scheme eventually ended in a public, messy scandal. Since scenes of Vice detectives squeezing Cohen would ruin the image of a fearsome gangster who intimidates the police, the Vice squad’s extracurricular activities do not appear in the movie.
The real gangster squad relied on Conway Keeler, who was valuable not just for his own ability but his contacts with sound and electrical engineers working for Naval Intelligence and the C.I.A., who were developing electronic surveillance devices for overseas operations that did not need a wire, so there would be no danger of a suspicious Cohen finding a wire in the wrong place. Instead, the bug was connected to a transmitter that sent a signal to a receiver located a couple of blocks away. The challenge of replacing the batteries was resolved when Cohen bought the most expensive television on the market. The repairman was persuaded to bring along a member of the squad, who promised Cohen weekly visits to maintain the set, which would be used to replace the batteries.
Claiming that Dragna is old, the screen Cohen declares independence and intends to take over LA. The real Cohen did not work for Dragna, the two men had been equals under Bugsy Siegel, who is never even mentioned. Showing Cohen’s repeated attempts to assassinate Dragna completely reverses the situation. While the real Gangster Squad was investigating Cohen, someone in the underworld was making a concerted attempt to kill Cohen, even though he had received permission from Frank Costello, the leading gangster in the nation, to take over Siegel’s operations. Cohen survived several assassination attempts in 1949-1950, including a bomb that blew up half of his house, and was finally wounded while waiting for cars to pick up his entourage at one of his favorite hangouts. Dragna should have been the obvious suspect, but Cohen refused to believe that Dragna resented Cohen’s succession of Siegel’s position, an error with near-fatal consequences. However, the press happily used headlines about the Sunset Strip War between Cohen and Dragna to sell papers.
Like far too many gangster movies, the police fear the gangsters. Cohen’s men deliberately fire at a patrol car when police interfere during an attempt to kill Dragna. Figuring out that they are cops working for Parker, Cohen kills one member of the squad, and targets their families. Admittedly, many, many policemen took regular bribes in exchange for looking the other way, but the high-level gangsters knew that shooting police was serious trouble. In fact, the squad routinely harassed Cohen, Dragna and their henchmen, pulling them over several times a day and forcing them to empty their pockets, in order to make it as difficult as possible for the criminals to conduct business. The greatest danger to the members of the squad was the strain on their marriages caused by long hours and uncertain schedules, especially since it was a period before it was socially acceptable for workers in high-stress occupations to see psychiatrists. Jumbo Kennard, the basis for Robert Patrick’s Kennard, died in a car accident on his way home after a few drinks, and Jerry Thomas, valued for his amazing memory, gradually cracked under the pressure and eventually shot himself.
A key element of the plot is the need to stop Cohen from setting up a wire service for betting because the massive revenue will make him too powerful. Actually, Bugsy Siegel had already set up the Transamerica Wire Service, which was inherited by Cohen, after Siegel’s murder in 1947. In fact, the wire service was a bone of contention between Cohen and Dragna, since Siegel’s wire had replaced the lucrative Continental service operated by Dragna. Despite the squad’s heroics in the movie, the greatest blow to the real gangsters occurred when the government finally forced Western Union to disconnect the wire used by Cohen’s company.
At one point in the film, the existence of the gangster squad is revealed, and newspapers call for the resignation of Chief Parker, who will be replaced by Cohen’s candidate. The newspapers found out about the real squad in November 1947 when six suspected gangsters from Cleveland and Detroit were arrested and escorted to the state border. The reporters had been informed in order to counter articles about the increasing number of undesirables who had appeared in LA, as well as to send a message to gangsters in the mid-West and the East coast. Admittedly, Cohen was not Parker’s biggest fan, and he attempted to use his influence to ensure the election of a more pliable candidate but he failed. The script gives Parker credit for protecting LA, neglecting his blatant racism or the Watts Riots in 1965.
Aside from constant harassment from the LAPD, Cohen was a target of Senator Estes Kefauver’s Special Senate Committee on the Investigation of Syndicated Crime in Interstate Commerce in 1950. Unlike other gangsters who relied on the Fifth Amendment or hid behind elaborate front companies, Cohen openly denied every allegation in blunt terms: “I ain’t never offered no policeman a bribe.” “I never pistol-whipped anyone.” The committee failed to make any effective accusations against him, but the hearings were televised, expanding his celebrity beyond LA to the national scene.
Cohen’s high profile eventually attracted the attention of the Bureau of Internal Revenue, which charged him with income tax evasion. Determined to prove that he was wealthy and avoiding paying his taxes, the prosecution called more than a hundred witnesses who testified about expensive items they had sold the Cohens. In early July 1951, Cohen was sentenced to five years in prison and close to $300,000 in back taxes, fines and trial costs. Refusing to learn his lesson, Cohen was convicted a second time for income tax evasion in 1961 after a parade of 194 witnesses testified about Cohen’s lavish treatment, while numerous people admitted that they had loaned thousands of dollars to an ex-gangster with no income other than a small share in an ice cream parlor.
Apparently, income tax evasion was too pedestrian for a ruthless mobster like Cohen, so the movie shows that his downfall resulted from the murder of Jack Whalen. Bookie Jack Whalen (Sullivan Stapleton) is a stereotypical good gangster, and has known Jerry Wooters all of his life, so Wooters keeps him out of jail in exchange for information. It is true that Wooters and Whalen cooperated with each other, but Whalen simply fed Wooters information to ensure the arrest of rival bookies. Whalen was murdered on December 2, 1959 while trying to collect on a debt owed by a member of Cohen’s entourage, but none of the diners or staff in the restaurant would admit to seeing the shooting. While Cohen is believed to have murdered Whalen, it was never proven, since one of Cohen’s flunkies claimed responsibility. More important, the shooting occurred after Cohen’s first prison sentence.
Hoping to increase the movie’s revenue-earning potential, the screenwriter shrank the original gangster squad from eighteen to six, each representing a separate stereotype: the straight-arrow leader, the geek, the African-American, the Hispanic, the grizzled veteran and the bad boy. There were no black or Hispanic cops on the Gangster Squad because integration happened at a glacial pace in the LAPD and racism was deep-rooted, which was one of the causes of the Watts Riots.
The film ends with the breakup of the squad following Cohen’s arrest, even though the original squad became a much larger organization that leaned heavily on newly arrived gangsters to explain firmly that LA was not Cleveland, Chicago or New York. When Parker became police chief in 1950, the squad was expanded to 37 men and re-named the Intelligence Division, which was divided into three teams: the first performed background checks to monitor the attempts of criminals to infiltrate legitimate businesses; the airport unit, where three men trained to memorize mugshots scanned recent arrivals for out-of-town gangsters; and the third unit carried out open surveillance in order to harass the suspects into leaving town.
A proper villain has to have underlings, the more the better, and Cohen has so many disposable goons that he kills several when they lose encounters with the squad. Many, many bullets are needed to eliminate them, often in slow motion. Aside from the minions killed during the warm-up matches, eighteen nameless hoods and two henchmen with names die in the climatic shootout. However, none of the countless goons are based on people who really worked for Cohen. The only one of the screen Cohen’s thugs who actually existed was Johnny Stompanato, who did occasionally work for Cohen as a bodyguard but is better known for marrying Lana Turner, and beating her on a regular basis until her teenaged daughter killed him with a pair of scissors. Otherwise, the hoods appear to have been hired from Rent-a-Hood, since they lack names, personalities or distinguishing features.
Gangster Squad transforms a chubby, germaphobic gangster who mixed freely with celebrities and weathered relentless harassment from a squad of police officers until convicted for income tax fraud into a powerful kingpin with a small army of disposable gunmen who ruled LA as his personal domain and was poised to take over the entire state until he is brought down by a handful of brave cops. After watching the movie, I was amazed by the relentless falsification of facts, but also wondering how had the director and scriptwriter made Cohen so boring? Famous evangelist Billy Graham made a major effort to convert him, he hung out with Errol Flynn and Robert Mitchum, and he called Chief Parker a corrupt degenerate during a live interview with Mike Wallace. Instead, the screenwriter drew on Hollywood’s well of worn-out cliches: One of the cops falls in love with the gangster’s woman; the police fear the gangsters; the gangster is so dangerous he preys on the more stable gangsters; and the good cops are heavily outnumbered by the gangsters.
Wow, did they ever screw with history. Extremely inaccurate, the movie is a deliberate falsification of the situation. Worse, it is not entertaining. However, I am sure that Paul Lieberman received a very large cheque.
The violence is brutal but entertaining brutal, not stomach-sickening brutal. Despite the abundance of thrilling car chases and gun battles, there is little originality. The scenes of the squad smashing Cohen’s casinos and burning businesses that are fronts for the wire service are well-executed but seem to have been modeled on other, better films.
Emma Stone is gorgeous but two-dimensional, essentially a shapely damsel-in-distress, unlike Mireille Enos, who is given a much meatier role. Instead of simply standing by her man and cooking dinner, Connie O’Mara researches and selects the squad members. It did not happen, since O’Mara did not head up the squad, but the screen writer deserves credit for making a strong role for a woman.
One of the few positive elements of the movie is the recreation of the Sunset Strip. The interiors of the clubs are gorgeous, and the movie should have spent more time in them. A scene where Carmen Miranda performs at Slapsy Maxie’s is a delight but the script focuses on a battle between good and evil, not Cohen’s social status as the king of the Sunset Strip, where he routinely mixed with celebrities such as Robert Mitchum and Errol Flynn. The question has to be asked, how could the producers choose formulaic gun battles over scenes of Mickey Cohen drinking with Mitchum and Flynn or Billy Graham’s attempts to persuade Jewish gangster Cohen to accept Jesus Christ at his personal savior? I will be really disappointed if Frank Darabont’s new series Lost Angels, which examines the same period, doesn’t spend more time on the Sunset Strip.
Penn’s Mickey Cohen looks like a villain from the Dick Tracy comics, which makes sense since the whole movie is cartoonish. Not Hayao Miyazaki cartoonish, which would be pretty awesome, more like 1980’s G.I. Joe cartoonish. No, not even that good. At least I could tell apart the leaders of Cobra. Honestly, I had to check IMDB to figure out the names of Cohen’s main henchmen, that’s how little impression they made. Furthermore, I actually learned something at the end of each episode of G.I. Joe, understandably since its catchphrase was “And knowing is half the battle!” Did I learn anything from Gangster Squad? Yes, but 90% is false, which defeats the purpose.
The best that can be said is that while both movies share a contempt for facts, Gangster Squad is not as offensive as The Untouchables.