‘Gangster Squad’ details rise and fall of Jewish mobster Mickey Cohen

Sean Penn is part of an all-star cast in ‘Gangster Squad.’

By Robert A. Cohn, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

In “Gangster Squad,” Oscar winning actor Sean Penn chillingly channels Mickey Cohen, the ruthless, sadistic—and Jewish—mob boss of Los Angeles in the 1940s. 

In his portrayal, Penn, indeed, is “over the top,” but so was the real-life Cohen, who along other real-life Jewish gangsters such as Meyer Lansky, the “Chief Financial Officer” of the National Crime Syndicate; Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, head of Murder Incorporated, Dutch Schultz and Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel were as much a part of the American organized crime scene as the five Mafia families described by Mario Puzo in “The Godfather.”

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Born in Brooklyn in 1913, Meyer “Mickey” Harris Cohen, son of Orthodox Jewish parents, proved his mojo for several years as a professional boxer. It was after his last fight in 1933 that he earned the nickname “Gangster Mickey Cohen.”

After cutting his criminal teeth with the Chicago mob, where he met Al Capone, Cohen was eventually sent to Los Angeles.  By 1949, he became the undisputed L.A. Crime Boss. Flanked by his ruthless henchmen, Cohen and his ultra-violent gang reap ill-gotten gains from drugs, gambling, prostitution and many other heinous enterprises as Cohen aimed to wrestle control of the western United States mob-dom, away from his Chicago brethren.

Cohen even “owned” much of the L.A. police force and the local politicians. Much, but not all, as a rogue cell of honest cops, the “Gangster Squad” of the title, with tacit approval from the honest Police Chief Bill Parker, (Nick Nolte, perfect) use “Dirty Harry” tactics to rid L.A. of the scourge of Cohen. 

Josh Brolin plays John O’Mara, the principled cop, fresh from service in World War II, who assembles a motley crew of sharp-shooting fellow policemen to conduct an “off-the-books” operation against Cohen and his gang.

Ryan Gosling is well cast as Jerry Waters, a nearly burned-out L.A. police detective who joins O’Mara’s crew, and at great and foolhardy risk becomes romantically involved with Cohen’s main squeeze, Grace Faraday played with steamy eroticism by Emma Stone.

The shoot-‘em-up violence in “Gangster Squad” is extreme; the film isn’t for the faint of heart. But under highly stylized direction from Rueben Flesicher, this film noir “opera” from the annals of American organized crime provides solid, gritty entertainment.