LOS ANGELES — Josh Brolin is a seventh-generation Californian and a second-generation Hollywood actor, but history is not always easy to see in a city under constant renovation. Brolin's star-turn as Sgt. John O'Mara in the gangland potboiler “Gangster Squad” taught the 44-year-old actor a lot about the Los Angeles Police Department's covert war against mobster Mickey Cohen, but then he got a surprise lesson from his father, actor James Brolin, about the lost landmarks where Cohen held court.
“My dad came to visit us when we were doing the scene at O'Mara's house one day,” Brolin said during a press day for “Gangster Squad” at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles.
“We were looking out on the street that had been recreated, and he just kind of went off on these stories about when he was 9 years old. How he used to ... peek in the back of Slapsy Maxie's, go down the street to Ciro's looking for Mickey Cohen and his goons.”
Those infamous haunts where Cohen collected a steady stream of dirty money are lost to history: the former site of Slapsy Maxie's is now an Office Depot, and Ciro's, located on Sunset Boulevard, has been the Comedy Store for 41 years.
But in “Gangster Squad,” directed by Ruben Fleischer (“Zombieland”), the plainclothes detectives who brought down Cohen are given a fictionalized but vivid portrayal, as is the Los Angeles they patrolled. Even the “Hollywood” sign reads as it did until 1949: “Hollywoodland.”
The film, which co-stars Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn and Emma Stone, is based on a Los Angeles Times feature that ran in seven parts in 2008, “L.A. Noir: Tales from the Gangster Squad.”
Brolin's O'Mara returned from World War II and quickly asserted himself as a renegade in the LAPD and, as one of the leaders of the off-the-books division known as the Gangster Squad, he became known for taking mobsters into the Hollywood Hills, putting a gun to their ear and scaring the daylights out of them.
“After he got back from World War II, I think he was shocked at how much Los Angeles had changed,” Brolin said. “Instead of being narcissistic and selfish, I think he thought about the future of his kids. I think he had a lot of integrity. I like the fact that it was this old idea of someone who has the honor of not following the manual of what they say law is.
“Back then, I think law was a lot less paranoid than it is now and I think the boundaries of law were a lot more malleable then than they are now,” he said.
“Guys thought outside the box. He had to think dirty in order to snuff out these guys who were trying to create Los Angeles into the Wild West, into a cesspool.”
Cohen, played by Sean Penn in “Gangster Squad,” was the lead instigator, a former boxer who became an enforcer with the Chicago Outfit, the powerful organized crime organization that was led by Al Capone during Prohibition.
After being sent to the West Coast to work with Bugsy Siegel, Cohen became a kingpin of booking operations after Siegel was killed. His rise was swift, and the LAPD's desire to rectify its reputation after a series of scandals helped speed the formation of O'Mara's division.
“Gangster Squad” mixes real-life characters such as Cohen, O'Mara, Gosling's Sgt. Jerry Wootens and surveillance expert Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi) with composite characters such as Stone's Grace Faraday, a would-be actress who becomes Cohen's girlfriend and, eventually, Wooten's love interest.
Brolin said his character evolved considerably during production and postproduction, with the final portrayal of O'Mara being a laconic man of few words.
Compared with Penn's Cohen, a brazen outlaw who gives voice to every evil impulse in his arsenal, Brolin said the plainclothes detectives in “Gangster Squad” are men of quiet, unstoppable resolve, which creates a strong contrast when Brolin and Penn, who have been friends since the 1980s, finally square off.
“I think the fight with Sean was the most difficult, because Sean didn't rehearse as much as I did,” Brolin said, laughing. “So his fists were flying wildly during the fight. It was a tough fight that we rehearsed for many, many weeks and I love the way it turned out, but I think both of us, being the current and ex-smokers that we are, found it challenging — on an oxygen level.”
While “Gangster Squad” offers a colorful exploration of a Los Angeles that has largely disappeared, Brolin said that the heroes in this period piece represent a timeless value.
“It's the idea that you manifest something honorable and have an impact,” he said.
Travel and accommodations provided by Warner Bros.