Gangster Squad: Corrupting a ‘True Story’


On paper, Gangster Squad sounds like a great idea.  Ryan Gosling, Josh Brolin, Sean Penn and the beautiful Emma Stone all sign on to do a movie directed by Ruben Fleischer, who brought us the very entertaining Zombieland.  The subject matter actually has potential: Post-WWII Los Angeles is the setting for a war between a mob boss (who has managed to buy off just about every cop in the city), and the few honest cops who are left to bring order.  Unfortunately, in this instance, the parts don’t add up, and there are too many problems to work through to make this an enjoyable film.

Josh Borlin has come a long way since his roll in The Goonies.

Josh Brolin has come a long way since his roll in The Goonies.

Firstly, we are presented with the claim that this film is based on a true story.  Really?  I did a little research. It turns out that Mickey Cohen, the antagonist of the film, was actually serving a jail sentence during the period in which the film takes place.  And not only that, but what he was in jail for was not nearly as exciting as what the film proposes.  The final showdown portrayed in the film never took place. Although Cohen’s character is represented as a champion boxer before his days with the mob, that is also a fiction. In real life, Cohen did receive a title shot, but he lost his only title match.  This film does not reflect the true story, but rather fictionalizes the narrative surrounding a real mob boss.  I don’t have a problem with films that embellish history or change facts to serve a purpose (whether that purpose be social commentary or pure entertainment doesn’t really matter). What I don’t like is when filmmakers try to sell the audience on the authenticity of a story that is so clearly fictional.  But this was only one small problem of the film.

Mickey Cohen was far more interesting than his cinematic rendering.

Mickey Cohen was far more interesting than his cinematic rendering.

One of the most glaring issues is the lack of character development on the part of the antagonist.  A hero, it is said, is only as good as his enemy. In this instance, Josh Brolin’s heroic figure, John O’Mara, is left holding the bag as the writers of this script thought it best to make the film’s antagonist a one-dimensional villain with no clear vision or code of conduct.  People who fail to supplicate to him?  They die.  People who make mistakes?  They die.  It’s not that I have a problem with an antagonist who is sociopathic, but where is the rationale for his actions?  He comes across as evil purely for the sake of evil.  Also, Penn’s performance is in most instances cartoonish.  The tragic thing is that the real Mickey Cohen was far more interesting than the movie makes him out to be.  He was acquainted with the likes of Frank Sinatra and Billy Graham. Though of Jewish ancestry, he became Christian, despite the conflict that existed between his faith and his profession.  His rationalization of this discrepancy: If there can be Christian politicians, why can there not be Christian gangsters?  The lack of character development in regard to Cohen makes is very difficult to understand why he has so many underlings willing to die for him (and there are a lot of them in this film).

A shot from David Cronenburg's Eastern Promises.  Like Gangster Squad, it deals with forced prostitution, but it does a much better job of it.

A shot from David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises. Like Gangster Squad, it deals with forced prostitution, but it does a much better job of it.

Many sub-plots of the film have potential.  In the opening sequence, for example, O’Mara rescues a woman who is about to be sexually assaulted. After subduing three pandering would-be rapists, he frees a number of women who had been locked up in an apartment building and force-fed heroin in order to develop an addiction that they would have to sustain by serving as prostitutes.  The Cohen character equates this process with the breaking in of a wild mare, an analogy also used in the film Eastern Promises by a far more interesting mob boss.  This film, though, relies on a single flashback to allude to the rescue, and does not explore the issue nearly as well as Eastern Promises has done.  This aspect of Cohen’s organization is perhaps the most morally reprehensible. Instead, we see more of his gambling enterprises, which are far more socially acceptable.

Did Sean Penn really need a prosthetic nose for this film?

Did Sean Penn really need a prosthetic nose for this film?

There are also issues with the portrayal of ethnic characters and histories in the film.  The protagonists are shown to be socially forward-thinking as they allow a Black member into their squad, as well as a character of Hispanic descent. However, other aspects of the film are a little more problematic.  When Nick Nolte’s character Chief Parker begins to recruit O’Mara for the special task force that is to take on Cohen’s organization, he makes a comment about having to go to war with “savages” (referring to the aboriginal peoples who were forced off their land) to win Los Angeles. This heritage seems too dear to him to hand it over to the likes of Cohen.  The reference to ‘savages’ is a little troubling.  Normally, I accredit such prejudicial comments to the character and not to the writer (for instance, later in the film an Italian mob boss, played by Jon Polito, refers to Cohen as a kike, which I took as an illustration of the morally flawed character, not of the writer. But in the instance with Chief Parker, this reference to ‘savages’ comes across as the sort of mentality that is consistently held up in the film.  Chief Parker is one of the protagonists, and he is encouraging the American ideal of manifest destiny.  There is also the issue of Sean Penn’s a prosthetic nose. Considering that he is playing a Jewish antagonist, it seems a little offensive to be indulging in the “big-nosed Jew” stereotype.  I do realize that actors sometimes wear prosthetic noses to look more like a historical character. Nicole Kidman, for example, wore an effective one for her role as Virginia Woolf in The Hours, while Anthony Hopkins recently wore a distracting one for his portrayal of Alfred Hitchcock. Neither of these modifications came across as ethnically charged. However, considering that Penn’s nose is already rather sizable, it seems a little excessive to add a prosthetic to the cast.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling must work through a poorly written love story.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling must work through a poorly written love story.

Then there is the hyper-masculine aura of the film.  Brolin’s O’Mara starts off the film by saying that “Every man wears a badge”, and the film is bookended with the same quote.  In this way, the role of the hero is reserved for the masculine realm, which I find problematic, even if it is meant to reflect the historical era.  Because the film is largely based on fiction, I don’t think it would hurt to include more progressive attitudes towards females, and the film does succeed in this a little through the very effective performance of Mireille Enos, who plays O’Mara’s expecting wife.  The character is written as a strong, independent, and intelligent woman, and is likely the best-developed character of the film.  Concerned about her husband’s safety as he tries to put his task force together, she takes the initiative to assemble an effective motley crew to take on Cohen’s mob.  The other female character, played by Emma Stone, while beautiful, is underdeveloped.  She is the love interest of Cohen as well as that of Jerry Wooters (played by Ryan Gosling). Since Wooters is part of the unit whose aim is to defeat Cohen, this is a dangerous complication for Stone’s character, Grace Faraday.  We do not see this conflict explored, though.  She is easily won over by Wooter, but continues to see Cohen.  She eventually agrees to testify against Cohen for the murder of a man she witnessed him kill, and so is projected as a heroine of sorts, but this is a rushed sequence and seems forced (and again, historically inaccurate as Cohen served time for tax evasion, not murder).

Mireille Enos plays perhaps the most interesting character of the film.

Mireille Enos, star of The Killing, plays perhaps the most interesting character of the film.

Then there is the violence.  I expected a lot considering the nature of the narrative, and I don’t have an issue with violence in film if it serves a purpose, but in this film, it comes across as gratuitous and unoriginal.  At one point, dogs are let loose on a human body, which is reminiscent of a scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. Tarantino’s scene, however, is much more effective and disturbing,  even though it amounts to less than three seconds of screen time.  The violence in Gangster Squad seems unrealistic.  One of the members of the  squad (Robert Patrick of Terminator Two fame) insists on using a revolver against numerous goons armed with machine guns.  He needs two hands to cock the gun and fire, which is laughable, as he’s trying to take out a guy using a Gatling gun.  There was room for some very creative gun play, but alas, no such innovation was employed.  If you want to see great gun play, I’d skip this and rent Equilibrium, or Kick-Ass (the scene where Chloë Grace Moretz unloads on a small platoon of armed antagonists is far better than any gun play in Gangster Squad).  That said, I am curious as to why this film hasn’t been called out for its use of violence, while Django Unchained, which was released within two weeks of this film, has been heavily criticized violent scenes.

Borlin and Gosling are about as good as they can be with the characters being written as poorly as they are, and Stone is beautiful.  It is also nice to see Giovanni Ribisi in the film, as I am a fan of his work and have not seen him in much lately. However, overall, many of the characters were cartoonish and one dimensional, the action sequences were clichéd, and the narrative was at times too unbelievable to suspend disbelief.

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.


  1. Yeah this movie was all style and little substance. It’s such a good story too. I wish they would have done a better job…

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