It’s a shame to see a talented actress like Emma Stone cast in the role of trophy moll. At least she doesn’t need to get her gear off, although she does have a scene in the sack with Ryan Gosling, who is otherwise besotted with himself. We are in Los Angeles, 1949.
With coppers and judges in his pocket, the notorious crim Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) runs the town with uncompromising savagery. Sergeant O’Mara (Josh Brolin) of the LAPD is assigned to take matters into his own hands and, working outside the law, bring Cohen down. He gathers an elite squad of badged killers – as Yul Brynner did in The Magnificent Seven (including one who, like James Coburn, is a specialist knife-thrower) – and from then on it is basically one stakeout and blitzkrieg after another.
The gold standard for the modern gangster flick remains Curtis Hanson’s LA Confidential (1997), its authenticity entrenched by the compromised motives of its flawed characters. O’Mara and his off-sider Wooters (Gosling) are unimpeachable and, sadly, Stone’s Grace is a paper-thin cut-out compared to Kim Basinger’s damaged call-girl.
Is it a trait of post-9/11 cinema that the mainstream will have no truck with nuance? I lost count of the homicides – they came twenty to the dozen. The pity is that the production values are of the highest order (a nocturnal car chase, shot from above, featuring swank Pontiacs and Oldsmobiles, is executed with the greatest technical skill), the art direction is stunning and the performances out of the top shelf, if in an over-stylised way.
The narrative hook is nigh impossible to free oneself from… but really, will we ever grow out of accepting the ‘might is right’ paradigm, that extreme violence is an unfailing best resort? And why do we lap it up simply because it is presented by celebrities gushing fake blood, with stunt doubles taking all their blows, and then squeal like stuck pigs when it happens on our streets in real life?
The movie is engaging only for its camp mindlessness.