Set in LA in 1949 (and loosely based on a true story), gruff police chief Nick Nolte places grim-faced sergeant Josh Brolin in charge of hiring a small crew of cops to help bring down boxer-turned-gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), whose payroll seems to include cops, judges, you name it, everyone except Nolte, Brolin, and his soon-to-be-formed squad. Helped by his pregnant wife, Brolin brings together smart-alec ladies’ man Ryan Gosling, veteran sharpshooter Robert Patrick (who comes as a package deal with his Mexican sidekick/ace driver Michael Pena), techie Giovanni Ribisi, and African-American cop Anthony Mackie. Emma Stone turns up as a woman attached to Cohen who would much rather attach herself to Gosling.
This 2013 gangster pic with graphic novel aesthetics from director Ruben Fleischer and writer Will Beall isn’t “The Untouchables” that it aspires to be. I also found Fleischer’s hyperreal sensibilities to be hit-and-miss, and it sure as hell ain’t another “Zombieland”. But taken as pure entertainment, it pretty much gets the job done, though it’s pretty lumpy. I just don’t think the story of the dogged pursuit of gangster Mickey Cohen should’ve been made this way. In terms of his performance, Sean Penn is perfectly fine for the rather 2D, superficial approach Fleischer and Beall are adopting. But his performance is absolutely torpedoed by the appalling makeup job that seems to be trying to turn Cohen into a wannabe Jake LaMotta. I get that Cohen was a boxing nut (and indeed a former boxer), but they lay it on way too thick, and not just the makeup. To me it seemed less about Cohen being a boxer and more about how the director saw “Raging Bull” and thought it was heaps wicked cool. But indeed, that makeup is appalling (check out the Jimmy Durante schnozzola!) and it turns the character (and yes, to a degree Penn obliges with his performance) into something resembling Mumbles or Pruneface from “Dick Tracy”. Some might not be too bothered by this, and Penn’s performance isn’t dull, it’s just...disappointing from an actor who is usually so much more than ‘OK’. He makes you appreciate De Niro all the more (his Capone in “The Untouchables” is the benchmark for this kind of showy gangster role), let alone guys like Cagney and Edward G. Robinson who started it all.
I also don’t think Ryan Gosling has taken quite the right approach to his character. At first, I thought he seemed somehow too ‘modern’ for the role. But what has actually happened is that Gosling has deliberately taken the approach of differentiating himself from everyone else by adopting a slightly higher pitch to his voice, and it’s off-putting and frankly out-of-place. He just doesn’t seem masculine or tough enough to be playing this 40s lawman character, and it really is mostly because of his voice. It’s almost as if the director told him the film was about ‘wiseguys’ and he got the wrong idea. I also felt that his characterisation was far too unflappably glib. I wanted to slap the guy around a bit. That said, it’s not a boring performance in the slightest.
Meanwhile, I’ve since learned that indeed there were African-American police officers as far back as the late 1800s, but it was pretty rare (and how many of you knew that? I had to look it up!) and I think the decision to have Anthony Mackie play an African-American cop here was unnecessarily tacked-on PC stuff to be honest (Pena’s Hispanic cop was to me a much easier pill to swallow for the period). I say tacked on because the script barely deals with the subject at all, so why bother? Mackie’s perfectly fine as always, but it just seemed superficial once again.
It sounds like I didn’t enjoy the film at all doesn’t it? Surprisingly enough, it ended up being more entertaining than not. Aside from the cartoony makeup, the film’s look is really attractive. Yes, it’s a bit hyperreal, but not enough to be entirely artificial-looking. The lighting and colour (despite this being a somewhat muted palette) are really gorgeous at times and Aussie cinematographer Dion Beebe (“Chicago”, “Memoirs of a Geisha”) is to be commended for not making things too dark or monochromatic. The neon lights really pop in the exterior shots and the interiors are almost technicolour-esque. Maybe a tad too hyperreal for me, but nonetheless attractive and interesting. The sepia-toned WB and Village logos set the right mood from the outset. The film looks somewhere in between B&W noir and graphic novel without being cartoony. I also enjoyed the music score by Steve Jablonsky (the remake of “Friday the 13th”, “Your Highness”), so that’s another thing in the film’s favour. Meanwhile, they don’t get much screen time, but Nick Nolte and especially Robert Patrick steal their every scene as grizzled veterans. In fact, Nolte looks and sounds so grizzled here you’d swear sometime between his infamous arrest and this film he literally morphed into a grizzly bear. Perfect casting, and although he looks seriously old, he nonetheless looks in good health as he chews the ever-lovin’ shit out of the scenery here. It seems wrong that Robert Patrick should be playing the ‘old dog’ role, but he’s bloody convincing and having more fun than anyone else on set. I’m not sure Hollywood ever quite figured out what to do with Patrick, but he steals the show here as a virtual cowboy.
In the lead role, a square-jawed, grim-faced Josh Brolin is the perfect choice in the kind of thing you used to see Sterling Hayden or Charles McGraw play. He probably fits into the period setting better than anyone else. Emma Stone and I don’t get along, frankly. I find her snarky screen persona almost “Juno”-levels of annoying, especially in “Easy A”. I didn’t think she’d have a clue what she was doing in a period setting like this, but surprise of all surprises, she’s perfectly fine. The look and the way she is photographed at times annoyed me, but that’s nothing to do with her performance. She also shares quite convincing chemistry with Gosling too, and his best scenes are with her.
The film is highly watchable, but a bit more superficial than I was expecting and not particularly memorable. It’s certainly a much better film than “Mobsters” and “Mulholland Falls” (with Nolte in the lead), however. In fact, I’ve gotta say it’s a whole lot better than it could’ve been. It’s not easy to get these kinds of period crime flicks right, and perhaps because I feared the worst from the trailers with its hyperreal look, I ended up liking it more because it was better than expected. It’s an OK bounce-back for Fleischer after the seriously disappointing sophomore effort “30 Minutes or Less”