Entertainment & Arts

Gangster Squad: Resurrecting the mob movie

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionRyan Gosling talks to Emma Jones about his new film Gangster Squad

Gangster Squad was delayed so its violent ending could be changed after the Aurora shootings last summer. Its cast and director explain why the rewrites were necessary, and where the film fits into the pantheon of mob movies.

Once, Hollywood churned them out on a monthly basis but, while The Godfather and Goodfellas are considered classics of the genre, gangster films have been few and far between since their heyday in the 1930s and 40s.

Now Zombieland director Ruben Fleischer has resurrected the genre with the release of Gangster Squad, the story of real life mob boss Mickey Cohen, who ran an organised crime racket in Los Angeles in the 1940s.

Sean Penn plays the Brooklyn-born boxer-turned-crook, complete with prosthetic nose because, as Penn explains, "it would have broken in the boxing ring several times".

Josh Brolin and Ryan Gosling co-star in what's billed as "the battle for the soul of Los Angeles".

It's based on the true story of a group of LA police officers, who were ordered to sabotage Cohen's drugs, gambling and prostitution rackets.

But such was the violence of Cohen's reign, and the level of corruption within the police and judiciary, that the officers had to work undercover. Their story was only made public years later in a book, also called Gangster Squad, by journalist Paul Lieberman.

"They have to fight fire with fire," explains Fleischer. "The title Gangster Squad is actually a double entendre because, in meeting Mickey Cohen's violence head-on, they become gangsters themselves.

Image caption Emma Stone, who plays Grace Faraday, previously starred in director Fleischer's undead comedy Zombieland

"Or to use another analogy, if you wade into a swamp, you're going to get dirty."

Set against the backdrop of Hollywood's so-called Golden Age, the film is shot in comic-book colours and heavily influenced by the film noir of that era. So much so that Penn's co-star Emma Stone - playing a gangster's moll - says her character "has the teeth of Vivien Leigh, Lauren Bacall's make-up, and all of it's Rita Hayworth".

What is modern, however, is its brutality. Cohen is a monster who disposes of his victims in a variety of imaginative ways and gun battles break out every few minutes.

The violence is heightened but one scene, in which four armed men fire into the audience from behind the screen at Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood, unexpectedly and tragically took on real life significance on July 20, 2012.

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionStars Sean Penn, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling were among those at the LA premiere

That night, 12 people were killed and 58 more injured when a lone gunman opened fire in a cinema in Aurora, Colorado, during a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises.

Within 24 hours, Warner Bros had pulled the trailer for Gangster Squad from cinemas, and the film's release date was pushed back by six months so the scene could be reshot.

According to Josh Brolin, there was never any suggestion of the film being shelved, but "that scene definitely needed to be redone".

"It was a horrible parallel, and out of respect to the victims and their family and friends, it had to go. It was a terrible moment for the country."

Fleischer needed several weeks to restage the scene, which takes place at a pivotal moment in the story. With several in-demand A-listers in the cast, he says he was fortunate "that everyone was able to come back, and Sean Penn came along to support us, even though he wasn't in the scene".

"We completely re-wrote the script and I think it's a better movie because of it."

Since the film was revised, 26 children and adults have been killed in a school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. The debate on gun control has never been more heated in the United States. Did Fleischer think that the release date should have been moved again?

"I don't think it has any connection in any way to Newtown at all," he replies. "The thing is, we were trying to make an authentic gangster film set in 1949. And there was no way to water it down. These are gangsters, they do bad things and they're bad people.

"We couldn't have a film set in this era without gangsters shooting their Tommy guns."

"At the end of the day, this is an action film," continues Josh Brolin. "It shouldn't be elevated into some other debate. It's escapism and entertainment."

Image caption Sean Penn plays a scrappy former boxer running a number of rackets in 1940s Los Angeles

The style and plot of the film strongly echo Brian De Palma's 1987 classic The Untouchables, starring Kevin Costner and Sean Connery - but there are also shades of LA Confidential, the 1995 police corruption thriller set in the same era.

Perhaps most mob films follow the same plot - bad guys versus good guys, with a sultry love interest in the middle - but Brolin believes there's always an audience for this genre.

"Really good gangster films, like The Godfather will always top people's film lists. And this is an interesting hybrid. Here you have the director of a comedy like Zombieland teaming up with Sean Penn.

"At times you think, 'is this a character movie?' At other times, you have cheesy references to the mob films of the '30s. I think it's taken the gangster flick in a whole new direction.

"I was in True Grit and no one ever, ever thought that would be a hit. And if you can resurrect the Western you can certainly bring back the gangster. It's just got to be done well."

Critics are arguing whether that's the case. Trade magazine Variety said the film was "so far out on a limb at moments, it makes Dick Tracy look like a documentary. But it's all in the spirit of classic B movie fun".

Empire magazine wrote that "while it's not lacking in visual razzle-dazzle or blood, story-wise it rarely manages to shock or excite".

What is certain however, is that the true story of this covert police operation during the critical, post-war era meant that organised crime never had a hold in Los Angeles in the way it did in cities like New York or Chicago.

"Ironically, although there were gang problems in LA in the 1980s and 90s, they were never gangsters, as such," Fleischer point out.

"There's just the movie industry in LA," adds Brolin," and that's quite enough of a problem."

Gangster Squad is in cinemas now.

More on this story

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites