Movie Journal
J. Hoberman on movies and movie-related things

MOVIE JOURNAL: J. Hoberman on movies and movie-related things

“Gangster Squad”: “I Never Killed Nobody…”

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Sean Penn as Mickey Cohen (Warner Bros)

Warner Bros., the studio most associated with the gangster flick in the genre’s early ’30s heyday, makes a modest and not especially welcome attempt at a revival with “Gangster Squad,” directed by Ruben “Zombieland” Fleischer from Will Beale’s screenplay.

Set in Los Angeles 1949, this R-rated serving of cartoonish ultra-violence, garnished with hyper-real period details, stars Sean Penn – as grotesque as a Dick Tracy villain with his features scrunched around a generous prosthetic proboscis – playing the real-life Hollywood mobster Mickey Cohen (memorably embodied a generation ago by Harvey Keitel in “Bugsy”). Megalomaniacal Mickey believes himself the embodiment of human progress. To demonstrate, the movie introduces him literally ripping a rival gangster in two, while quoting a Bela Lugosi line from “Dracula.”

After that stunt, anyone is preferable: The good guy with the gun is brazenly two-dimensional Josh Brolin, with lazy-eyed charmer Ryan Gosling and stone-faced Anthony Mackie as his chief lieutenants. Emma Stone is less animated than Jessica Rabbit in the role of Mickey’s moll and Nick Nolte seems barely human as Cohen’s supposed nemesis, legendary LAPD police chief William Parker. The ridiculous sub James Ellroy scenario is degenerate diversion for about 45 minutes. The movie outstays its welcome long before the sub John Woo total automatic weapon madness of the final shoot out, complete with exploding Christmas trees.

Originally scheduled to open last summer opposite the Weinstein Bros. period gangster opus “Lawless,” “Gangster Squad” was pushed back in deference to the Aurora movie-house massacre. Not only was its trailer showing with “The Dark Knight Rises,” but the movie featured a scene in which Mickey’s minions shoot it out with the LAPD in Grauman’s Chinese Theater. Although the scene has been cut, the movie has hardly escaped history. The screening I attended was held on the second anniversary of the Tucson rampage that wounded Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, on the very afternoon that Colorado prosecutors were laying out the case against the Aurora gunman and that the president and vice-president held a news conference to address the issue of gun violence.

“Gangster Squad” ends with a burst of bullshit (including a meaningless reference to “High Noon” and “Dirty Harry” as Brolin chucks his badge into the Pacific), but Mickey Cohen — the Chicago tough guy who took over the Los Angeles mob after his mentor Bugsy Siegel bought the farm in 1947 — would be a fascinating movie subject.

The real Mickey ca 1950

A dapper, diminutive man about town, dating starlets and getting his picture in the papers — thanks in good measure to the publicity provided by the Hearst papers (under orders from The Chief to depict the thug as a colorful “Robin Hood”) — Cohen was sufficiently infamous to be stopped on the street for his autograph and posed for Life magazine on the lawn of his Brentwood mansion. Cohen had juice. Not only was he pals with Bugsy Siegel, but his boyhood friend Artie Samish was the most influential lobbyist in Sacramento. Mickey was an early supporter of Richard Nixon; he raised money for Nixon’s 1950 senatorial campaign, as well as the terrorist freedom fighters of Irgun and his “best friend” Frank Sinatra.

Among his other interests was the Rhum Boogie, a Hollywood night club specializing in African American acts. Mickey prided himself on his racial tolerance, claiming to have been shocked when Columbia boss Harry Cohn (no relation) tried to hire him to murder Sammy Davis Jr. in order to keep the singer from dating Kim Novak.

Cohen twice served time (for income tax evasion) but, hardly pummeled to death by Josh Brolin, lived long enough to publish the 1975 memoir that is the source for his many boasts, including the assertion that “I never killed nobody that didn’t deserve killing by my standards.” To its credit, “Gangster Squad” makes it clear that Mickey more or less ran the city of Burbank — which he did — although it fails to mention that that municipality was then the home of the Warner Bros. studio where, as he bragged in his memoir, he used his connections to place certain associates.

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