When Ryan Gosling was asked if he wanted to be in a gangster movie with Sean Penn, he said, "Sure." And why not? Penn has achieved a kind of Olympian status in Hollywood, the bad boy turned actor's actor. Gosling -- younger, well-regarded, the heir-apparent to George Clooney and, by extension, Cary Grant -- would obviously want to work with Penn.
And not only would the fact-based "Gangster Squad" -- which opens Jan. 11 -- star Penn as legendary Los Angeles mobster Mickey Cohen, but Josh Brolin ("No Country for Old Men") would play the granite-jawed police sergeant John O'Mara, who wrangles an off-the-books crew to fight Cohen on his own nasty terms. The tropically hot Emma Stone would be the movie's gun moll in residence. And Gosling -- as detective Jerry Wooters -- would get to play the charismatic/attitudinal sidekick, the Doc Holliday to Brolin's Wyatt Earp. As a bonus, he'd get to cross actorly swords with Sean Penn.
"Upon closer examination," Gosling said dryly, regarding the screenplay by Will Beall, "I realized I didn't have any scenes with Sean Penn. So I can't really say I've worked with Sean Penn. In fact, I think I saw more of Sean Penn in the trailer for this movie than I saw him on set."
That's OK. Pacino and De Niro never had any scenes together in "Godfather II," and it turned out to be a pretty decent gangster flick -- and one of the few from which "Gangster Squad" doesn't borrow liberally, in its effort to be a super-hybrid of the mob movie. Amid its visual hallucination of postwar L.A., and a certain historical veracity (it's based on Paul Lieberman's series of Los Angeles Times articles on the real-life cops-vs.-Cohen crime wars), there's a load of vintage movie refs: The hard-boiled dialogue ("Who's the tomato?" "Mitts in the air!"), the Hoagy Carmichael music, the lead-spitting Tommy guns.
"It was insinuated that I was going to have a Tommy gun," Gosling said, ruefully, "but that didn't happen. Actually, I got the Tommy gun for one scene, but I had drunk a Red Bull and they wouldn't give me the Tommy gun again."
Other allusions in "Gangster Squad" aren't quite so antique: "L.A. Confidential," for instance, which dealt with the same era in organized West Coast crime; and Brian De Palma's "The Untouchables," which also involved an unorthodox team of "specialists" put together to fight a specific source of evil. In "The Untouchables" it was Al Capone; in "GS," Mickey Cohen. ("Gangster Squad's" unorthodox good guys include Robert Patrick's mustachioed pistolero Max Kennard, Anthony Mackie's switchblade-toting Coleman Harris and Giovanni Ribisi's bookish electronics expert, Conway Keeler).
"It's also 'The Magnificent Seven,' " offered director Ruben Fleischer ("Zombieland"). "It's a 'mission' movie -- you assemble a team to take down a villain. It's a classic genre, and I love this version of it.
"There's a classic tradition of the gangster film, and we feel lucky to be part of that lineage," he said.
A vintage City of Angels
Certainly, no one involved in "Gangster Squad," which Brolin admitted was testosterone-driven "escapist fun," wanted to be part of anything controversial (see sidebar); if anything, the actors found it to be a romantic evocation of a bygone L.A.
"It was totally great for me," said Brolin. "My old man came to the set one day and was kind of going off on stories about that time, late '40s, early '50s, and it was really something to listen to him talk about the innocence of that time, and the loss of innocence, and see how much he was pining for that time. It was great to see it through the eyes of someone who'd been there, as opposed to me, who can only listen and imagine it. It just deepened my appreciation for it, but I have a whole romantic notion of California, anyway."
And while Gosling may not have gotten his Tommy gun or his quality time with Sean Penn, he found the trip into "Gangster Squad" like "walking around in the shadows" of a time and place that's inseparable from the movies, or the cinematic process of turning history into cinema and cinema back into a popular version of history.
"What's interesting about that world," he said of the Cohen era, "was that you had gangsters creating their own mythology, and eventually creating it, and then having a lot of films pay homage to that mythology. What we do is create our own mythology, inside of that mythology."
Rescheduling the opening
Timing hasn't exactly been on the side of "Gangster Squad": Originally scheduled for a fall opening, the movie -- which contains no small amount of gun violence -- was moved to this Friday, because of the mass murder this summer in Aurora, Colo.
"We had to reshoot one scene," Josh Brolin said, referring to a sequence involving a shooting in a movie theater, "because the parallel was just bizarre, it was so exact. And yet that event seems almost passe the way the way it's been dealt with politically."
What followed of course, was Newtown. Even if something like "Django Unchained" or "Call to Duty: Black Ops" makes "Gangster Squad" looks like "Sesame Street," the guns-in-the-media backlash may draw criticism. Brolin, during a phone interview, was obviously torn about the issue.
"Do you do away with violence in the movies entirely, or turn around and be allowed to fist fight?" he asked, not entirely in jest. "Maybe if there were more fist fights, there'd be less large-scale violence. I don't know. I don't have guns myself but everyone around me does," referring to central California, "and we're the same people. I don't shy away from talking about it, but I can't imagine having to deal with the loss of a child. I can't sit here and objectively say the response to it isn't emotional."