The Corner

Gangster Squad

As a native Angeleno, I have wondered why L.A. never became as mobbed up as Chicago or New York City. A movie called Gangster Squad, currently in theaters, may help explain why.

Based on a true story, it depicts a vicious Chicago Mafia figure named Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn, as nasty as ever), who gains tremendous power and wealth as he dominates organized crime in late-1940s Los Angeles. He sees himself and his underworld network as the future of the West Coast — Manifest Destiny with brass knuckles.

A surprisingly grizzled and perfectly gravel-throated Nick Nolte plays L.A. Police Chief William H. “Whiskey Bill” Parker, after whom the LAPD’s Parker Center headquarters is named. Parker sees Cohen as an existential threat to the ascendant city. Rather than simply nab him, Parker wants Cohen’s gambling, drug, and prostitution rackets shattered into shards. He wants nothing left of Cohen’s empire that other mobsters could covet or acquire.

Chief Parker assigns World War II veteran Sgt. John O’Mara (an anvil-like Josh Brolin) to recruit a team of rough and ruthless cops to battle Cohen by whatever means necessary — legal or, well, not so much. (As the movie’s slogan sums it up: “No Names. No badges. No Mercy.”) In this sense, O’Mara’s granite-tough Gangster Squad is a more renegade version of Eliot Ness and his men in Brian DePalma’s The Untouchables, an Oscar-winning movie set in Al Capone’s Prohibition-era Chicago.

#more#In a small role, Josh Pence portrays Parker’s driver, Officer Daryl Gates. For his part, the late Gates eventually rose to world fame as LAPD chief during the controversies and chaos — most notably, the deadly Rodney King riots — of the 1980s and ’90s.

The ensuing extreme violence unfolds with style — good versus evil, with the good cutting legal corners that will rattle civil libertarians but that get a very difficult job done.

This story is fascinating, and screenwriter Will Beall’s film-noir-style dialogue has that Raymond Chandler, private-eye feel. The one line that grates the ear emerges when O’Mara interrupts the flying bullets long enough to tell a colleague, “Cover me,” before racing off to a better vantage point. Let’s retire that cliché, along with any further mention anywhere of people who “talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk,” whatever that means.

Sean Penn hams it up but is fun to watch as he broils ever more deeply in a sadistic rage. Josh Brolin’s performance is solid and square-jawed. The ever-satisfying Ryan Gosling offers his reliable blend of quiet self-confidence, smoldering charm, and a dash of youthful vulnerability. It also is good to see him shaved and presentable for a change.

Gangster Squad looks superb. Director Ruben Fleischer, Academy Award–winning cinematographer Dion Beebe and production designer Maher Ahmad present on screen a beautiful period gloss. In the final shootout, a high-speed camera captures bullet casings flying through the air in slow motion. In one stunning shot, a Christmas-tree ornament gets sliced by a slug and explodes into thousands of pieces, à la the captivating work of stroboscopic photographer Harold Eugene Edgerton. The costumes, sets, automobiles, props, and other atmospherics are all dazzling. Gangster Squad’s ease on the eyes also came about, in part, thanks to the apprentice editing of my cousin, Joshua Raymond Lee.

Don’t miss the splendid closing credits. The film’s stars and top off-camera talent get their due via a display of 1940s vintage postcards. As we listen to Peggy Lee and Mel Tormé’s delightful song “Bless You (For the Good That’s in You)” — one of the film’s many swinging jazz tunes –Hollywood landmarks, beach scenes, and glimpses of other L.A. attractions scroll by in vivid, cheerful, sunny colors. These commercial artists optimistically depicted the dreamland that millions found where the West hit the water. Amid today’s traffic congestion and economic constipation, that palm-tree-lined paradise barely rings a bell.

Gangster Squad is an entertaining and visually appealing peek at a decisive moment in Los Angeles’ history, with a finger-snapping soundtrack. It beats with a billy club hiding at home on a midwinter evening. 

Deroy Murdock is a Manhattan-based Fox News contributor and a contributing editor of National Review Online, and a senior fellow with the London Center for Policy Research.

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