Giovanni Ribisi
Giovanni Ribisi in Gangster Squad. (Wilson Webb, Warner Bros.)

He may not brandish a machine gun in his new movie Gangster Squad, but actor Giovanni Ribisi knows his Tom Powers (from 1931’s The Public Enemy) from his Tony Camonte (from 1932’s Scarface).

“I mean, this genre is a cornerstone of cinema and the birth of so many different styles,” he says during a recent visit to Toronto. “I believe film noir came from the gangster genre of the 1940s, and I think that was one of the reasons that I wanted to become an actor; those old films, those gangster films. The story structure was always so simple, and there was always the best twist at the end.”

Set in 1949 Los Angeles, Gangster Squad stars Josh Brolin (Men in Black III) as Sgt. John O’Mara, a no-nonsense WWII veteran-turned-LA cop sickened by the corruption he sees within his department. With the majority of the city’s politicians – and even his fellow
officers – on the payroll of rising gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), O’Mara sees a way to save his city when he is asked to create an off-the-books squad to cripple Cohen’s operations – by any means necessary. To that end, O’Mara recruits a number of cops passionate about destroying Cohen’s chokehold on Los Angeles.

Ribisi (Avatar, Ted) plays Conwell Keeler, a real-life WWII vet and intelligence expert who, in the film, plant bugs at Cohen’s house and wiretaps his conversations in order for the squad to gain the upper hand against his operation. Keeler is, for lack of a better word, the group’s conscience, at one point asking O’Mara what the difference is between them and Cohen, given the squad’s violent methods.

“Well, it speaks to the whole notion of the Forties,” Ribisi says of Keeler’s misgivings. “It’s just a whole different era, and when people really wanted to fight the good fight, they meant it, and they put action behind their words. People were signing up for WWII because they wanted to go defeat the bad guy, and it was just another time. It was an innocent time. And I think he really feels like that, and he really does want a brighter future for his son. And that was a thing that I really loved about the movie was just being honest. He’s not being jaded about that notion.”

Directing the film is Ruben Fleischer, the stylist behind the zomcom Zombieland (2009) and the heist comedy 30 Minutes or Less (2011). I ask Ribisi what Fleischer is good at.

“There was a director I worked with a long time ago where they said, ‘He doesn’t necessarily direct a movie as much as he hosts a movie,’” Ribisi replies. “And I would say Ruben definitely has an aspect of that, but he’s younger and he brings a young sensibility to things.

“And he definitely has a strong point of view. He’s not just one of these guys who is a hired gun; he’s definitely creating and in the process of creating his own style. And I would absolutely work with him again. I think he’s fantastic.”

Ribisi describes the mood on set as “[v]ery concentrated. I think there’s a certain sort of concentration and focus that Sean [Penn] has that other people have, and I think that as the next generation of actors I think that we, to a greater or lesser degree, aspire to that. And I think that focus, in and of itself, brings the level of everybody else up.”

Gangster Squad was originally set to come out last September, but the shooting last summer at an Aurora, Colorado movie theatre during a screening of The Dark Knight Rises that left 12 patrons dead and 58 wounded led Warner Bros. to ask Fleischer to reshoot a key action scene in the film involving Cohen’s men opening fire in Hollywood’s now-legendary Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Fleischer complied, the scene was rewritten (to be set in LA’s Chinatown instead), and the film’s release was bumped back to January.

While he is loath to blame Hollywood for such episodes of violence, as the likes of NRA spokesperson Wayne LaPierre has done recently in the wake of the Newtown shooting, Ribisi empathizes with the decision to change the film.

“In anything you do, you have to look at the scope and how broad the effect it creates is,” he says. “And I think that Hollywood and the film industry is global, and to that degree, we have a responsibility. I agree with what they did in addressing changes.

“That said I think that if you look at the history of filmmaking, and even storytelling, there is, since day one, violence and the use of weapons, and I think that it’s a shame when Hollywood becomes a scapegoat for that sort of thing. There are so many other factors to consider that are confluent with the rise of these heinous crimes.”