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Stars: Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Emma Stone, Anthony Mackie, Michael Peña, Giovanni Ribisi, Robert Patrick
Director: Paul Lieberman
Now that he has his Oscars (for Mystic River and Milk) safely tucked away, Sean Penn appears to have relaxed his approach to his screen roles. While it would be unfair to blame him overmuch for The Tree of Life, a dire movie which saw him taking on writer and director Terrence Malick and, like the film, losing all the way.
This gaudy, action-packed, but in the final analysis not particularly memorable gangster flick casts Penn as Mickey Cohen, the Brooklyn-born mobster who, when he says, “You can tell them Los Angeles belongs to Mickey Cohen”, means just that. In 1949, he is making a fortune from drugs, guns and whores, with a little help from the corrupt cops in his pay.
Penn’s portrayal of Cohen is to the hilt and well beyond it, creating a through-and-through psychotic who would make Norman Bates seem like a pastor by comparison. And to prove his superior streak of nastiness, he kicks the film off, appropriately at the foot of the Hollywood sign, by having a man torn apart – graphically - by the two automobiles between which he has been chained, an effectively nasty scene that sets the basically cold-blooded tone of what is to come.
Which, in a film that we’re informed, is “inspired by a true story”, thus giving rise to ignoble thoughts that this, as so often is the case, simply means “only the facts might have been changed to make a better storyline”. That said, screenwriter Wilt Beall’s muscular adaptation of Paul Liebernan’s book Gangster Squad allows director Ruben (Zombieland) Fleischer plenty of leeway to serve up vividly staged action to enliven a storyline that resembles De Palma’s 1987 gangster opus The Untouchables.
So, in synopsis, here we have the oft-told tale of Good Cops versus Bad Guys. Stony-faced Los Angeles Police Department sergeant Brolin leads Gosling and hand-picked cop colleagues on a covert mission to kill off Cohen’s operations – with no holds barred.
And the result? Lashings of bullets and blood and splendidly-staged gangster movie action set against attractively recreated Los Angeles backgrounds. Fleischer clearly settles for the visceral against the cerebral. Characterisation is essentially a matter of casting. Brolin plays his ex-army hero and family-man turned mob hunter as a strong man with a clear view of his mission, while Gosling exudes humour along with charm, notably in his love scenes with Cohen’s moll (Stone). Also featured but not particularly memorable are Ribisi, Peña, Mackie and Patrick as the other members of Brolin’s squad.
There are others (Nolte, showing his age, among them), but given Penn’s enormous serving of camera- hugging ham, they don’t really register. It’s the action (the real-life shootings in a cinema in Aurora led to the replacement of the originally filmed original shootout at Graumann’s Theatre with a gaudy climactic gunfight in Chinatown) rather than the acting that keeps you watching.
USA 2013. UK Distributor: Warner Brothers. Technicolor.
113 minutes. Widescreen. UK certificate: 15.
Guidance ratings (out of 3): Sex/nudity 0, Violence/Horror 3, Drugs 0, Swearing 3.
Review date: 08 Jan 2013