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Cinema in Focus: ‘Gangster Squad’

Based on true events involving L.A. gangster Mickey Cohen, the film presents a fascinating question of how to stop organized crime

3 Stars — Challenging

The basic facts of Ruben Fleischer’s Gangster Squad are true. Mickey Cohen was a small Jewish gangster whose violent nature and sociopathic willingness to kill made him a threat to society and for the need of special police enforcement.

A friend of such Hollywood celebrities as Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra, Cohen began his rise to power as a pimp preying on the young women who came to Los Angeles to become a star. His lust for power eventually made him an enemy of his mob handlers in Chicago and with local police, and he was imprisoned by an elite squad of police for tax evasion. Freed after four years and then imprisoned a second time, Cohen died of stomach cancer at age 62.

Based on a book written by Paul Lieberman and adapted for the screen by Will Beall (writer for the TV series Castle), the seasoned ensemble cast brings this story to life. The violence is not graphic but incessant, and the evil of organized crime alarmingly revealed.

The story contrasts two types of men. Cohen (Sean Penn) is an angry, greedy, power-hungry person who has no regard for anyone, within or outside the law. A trained boxer, he is more than ready to fight anyone at anytime. Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) is a faithful, courageous father who has come back from World War II as a decorated veteran with two Purple Hearts. But Sgt. O’Mara is still fighting the war as he also is looking for a fight. Although his impulse comes from a place of justice and compassion, his anger often leads him into foolish decisions.

Balancing him is his brilliant, strategic and pregnant wife, Connie (Mireille Enos). When Connie realizes that she cannot tame the beast within him, she helps him respond to Chief Parker’s (Nick Nolte) request to lead an off-the-record squad of police to defeat Cohen.

Strategically blending together men who could match his intensity, she chooses Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi), Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie) and Max Kennard (Robert Patrick). In addition, Kennard brings Navidad Ramirez (Michael Peña) to the squad. Their vigilante justice sets aside the law but not their moral code. Rather than take the money when they raid Cohen’s establishments they burn it, an act that causes Cohen to realize that they are police and not a rival gang.

To further spice up the struggle between Cohen and the Squad, Wooters seduces Cohen’s beautiful girlfriend, Grace Faraday (Emma Stone). That Faraday was willing to risk death to continue this liaison with Wooters demonstrates the desperation of her situation. Having herself come to Hollywood to become a movie star, she was instead enslaved by Cohen and lives in pervasive fear.

The film clearly claims that the reason Cohen could prosper was due to crooked police and politicians. But when a squad of men who could not be bought pursue him, his reign of terror ends. This lesson of history is a lesson that must be restated to each generation. Perhaps that is the purpose of this troubling film.


» The fact that we cannot end the distribution of drugs in our nation could imply some cooperation by those in various law enforcement agencies. Do you believe there are those today who are bought by the drug cartels and organized crime? Why do you answer as you do?

» The underlying message of a film like this is that our legal system cannot protect us from criminals who manipulate it, and we therefore need elite squads of good men to go outside the law to protect law-abiding citizens. Do you believe this is true?

» When veterans return home from war, it is very difficult for them to adjust to normal life once more. This film implies that O’Mara had to give up law enforcement in order to find peace. How do you think we should help those who return from defending their nation after having been forced into behaviors that damage their souls? Why do you think there was no person of faith coming alongside the O’Mara family in this film?

— Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is a former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church, 1435 Cliff Drive. For more reviews, visit, or follow them on Twitter: @CinemaInFocus. The opinions expressed are their own.

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