I love a good period movie that accurately re-creates the time period involved. To a great extent that’s what director Ruben Fleischer does here. The shots of 1949 Los Angeles are extraordinary. There is one shot of a downtown street scene with circa 1949-and-earlier cars and the Big Red Car running through it that is remarkable.
But there are so many factual errors that the movie comes across as little more than a cartoon. There are many shots of the Hollywoodland sign. What has come to be known as the “Hollywood” sign was put up in 1924 by a realty company called “Hollywoodland.” The “land” was deleted, and the year it was deleted was 1949. But I certainly don’t criticize Fleischer for attempting to present an evocative picture of Los Angeles in the 1940s by emphasizing the Hollywoodland sign, even if it might not have been there when these events were supposed to occur. And, let’s face it, the events that occur in his movie are just about entirely fictional. And that’s a shame because there’s enough about the Mickey Cohen saga in Los Angeles to make a fascinating film based mostly on the truth.
The basis of Fleischer’s film is to tell about legendary LAPD Police Chief William H. Parker’s (Nick Nolte) “war” against Cohen. But Parker actually didn’t take over as Chief until 1950, the year after this movie is set. I’m not sure why a moviemaker would intentionally want to make a mistake like this. Was it so important that the movie be set in 1949? Couldn’t he have set it in 1950 when Parker really was the new Police Chief in town?
One thing this movie does get right is depicting Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) as a brutal psychopathic killer, a person to be feared because he was so cold-bloodedly vicious. Penn gives a terrific performance as Cohen.
Also shining is Emma Stone as Mickey’s moll, but what else is new? She always shines. She is gorgeous and made up to look like the movie star she is.
While people mostly refer to “chemistry” as feelings between a man and a woman in a film, there can also be chemistry between two heterosexual men. MGM made several movies in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s starring Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy, and there was noticeable chemistry between the two. In the ‘60s and early ‘70s Paul Newman and Robert Redford had fantastic chemistry in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), and The Sting (1973). Here, for this movie to work there should be chemistry between the two protagonists Josh Brolin, who plays Gangster Squad leader Sgt. John O’Mara, and Ryan Gosling, who plays Sgt. Jerry Wooters, but there isn’t even a hint of feeling between the two of them. (There is chemistry between Gosling and Stone, though, and this is their second pairing).
Worse, and most unfortunately, Fleischer inserts ridiculous gunfights with thousands of bullets being sprayed all over Los Angeles, reminiscent of the Warner Bros. gangster films of the ‘30s. Nothing like this ever occurred in Los Angeles.
This was on the cusp of being a terrific film, one that would not only entertain, but would educate people about an interesting time of Los Angeles history. I lived through this period, though, and nothing like these World War II-type gunfights occurred, although after gangster Bugsy Siegel was assassinated by the mob in 1947, it is said that Mickey did enter the lobby of the Hotel Roosevelt and fired shots from his .45 pistols in the air, demanding that the assassins appear. And in the year covered by this film, 1949, there was an attempt on Mickey’s life at Sherry’s restaurant on the Sunset Strip by gunmen who shot him and several others, including celebrated columnist Florabel Muir, a Cohen confidant. Neither of these events is covered in the movie.
While this movie implies a completely different ending, in point of fact Cohen was finally sentenced to jail for tax evasion. So if you’re just going for entertainment, this isn’t so bad. If you want to learn something, however, this is not the vehicle. Even so, stay for the closing credits because they are shown over old postcard pictures of the Los Angeles covered in the film and they are very well done.