“It’s Mickey Cohen’s Town …”

"L.A. is my destiny." Sean Penn as Mickey Cohen

“Los Angeles is my destiny…. ” — Sean Penn as Mickey Cohen

IF I were teaching my L.A. class this spring, this would have been part our the mid-semester discussion, in which we spend a week or two on L.A. noir and the city’s underside. I am a big fan of John Buntin’s excellent history of the era L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City,and one of the early chapters we dip into evocatively walks this territory.

Gangster Squad, which opens Friday, is based on New York-gangster Mickey Cohen’s influence in Los Angeles. But this particular slant on the story was set in motion by a series of newspaper articles that ran in the Los Angeles Times in 2008. The pieces explored the history of the LAPD detail that was informally assembled under police chief William Parker to identify and eradicate mob rule in Southern California. Going after Cohen (played by Sean Penn in the film) was like going for the beating heart.

As most long-time Angelenos know (as well as anyone else who even casually studies L.A.’s checkered history), the line between “good and bad” — in that era in particular — was not just fuzzy but fungible.

I’m hoping Gangster Squad delivers — the trailer’s look and feel and the locales chosen as backdrop suggest that there was thought behind what needed to be conveyed and how that might expressed, but sometimes those period Los Angeles stories on the screen are simply vapor: style trumps substance.

Already, as verisimilitude goes, the Jay-Z thumping in the background on the trailer doesn’t bode well…but I will be there. Have to.

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