Yeah, this is the movie that they had to send back and rework because it contained a scene eerily similar to the Colorado movie theater shooting. They have since deleted the offending scene. But there’s still a lot of violence, most of it with automatic weapons, so those who feel this would not be the time to support such movies may still choose to stay away from this self-conscious period piece, even though it’s “based on a true story.”
Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) was a gangster who moved to L.A. in the late 1940s to establish his empire of corruption: prostitution, gambling, extortion, drug distribution – the whole sordid panoply of illegal activity. He became so powerful that he was reported to have several suburban police departments in his orbit, also, either bribed or threatened or both – which meant that his enforcement thugs were beyond prosecution. This was an unholy mess, and the LA police were not making headway, and the “clean cops” just hated to see this thug take over their city.
At least one police chief (played by Nick Nolte) was not going to have it. He privately recruited a bunch of military veteran policemen who would work “off the record,” and therefore not have to bother with niceties like arrest and prosecution. Just go after them. Since most of these men had just returned from World War II, they knew what combat was about, and they were not afraid of it. They were quite willing to be a renegade hit squad, telling themselves that they were making their city safe for their children.
Of course, they were also eventually asking themselves what made them so different from the gangster they were after, if all they did was destroy property and shoot anybody who got in their way. True, the property was illicitly gained, but still …. they were equally violent, and just as beyond the law.
Sean Penn plays Mickey Cohen like the fighter that he was. He was originally a professional boxer, after growing up on the streets, then a bodyguard for a gangster, then a full-fledged hoodlum himself. He never had a “real” job, nor paid any taxes, which is historically how the Feds eventually got him: tax evasion. But in this movie, he was brought down by this covert “Gangster Squad,” six commando-type guys with machine guns and fearlessness and determination.
One of them, Wooters (Ryan Gosling) develops an interest in Cohen’s girlfriend, Grace (Emma Stone), and is determined, when he brings Cohen down, to claim her for his own. At one point some members of the Gangster Squad are captured by some crooked cops, allied with Cohen, and have to pretend they’re not the police themselves, which sets them up for some rough treatment. It’s one of those situations where to get the bad guys, the good guys have to be badder than the bad guys, which always results in a moral quagmire. Like the issue today of torturing suspected terrorists for information. Everybody wants the result, nobody wants to endorse the process.
“Gangster Squad” is one of those ends-justifies-the-means scenarios that will sit better with some genteel viewers than with others.
Ronald P. Salfen is the minister at St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.