The film starts out on a good note, with Josh Brolin as a straight-arrow veteran of World War II who is hired by Los Angeles police chief William H. Parker (Nick Nolte) to bring down ruthlessly ambitious gangster Mickey Cohen (overplayed by Sean Penn). His mission is to gather a small, secretive team of specialists to do whatever it takes to put the mobster out of business—without the official sanction of the L.A.P.D. For Brolin this presents a considerable moral dilemma, having to break the law in order to serve a greater cause. Alas, the movie is more interested in being a pulpy, bloody gangster film than a three-dimensional true-crime saga.
It’s watchable because of the colorful recreation of L.A. in 1949 (thanks to cinematographer Dion Beebe and production designer Mather Ahmad) and its appealing cast, but it becomes unsatisfying as it grows more outlandish, right up to its bullet-riddled climax. The film even asks us to believe that Brolin’s pal Ryan Gosling could have a fling with Cohen’s girlfriend (Emma Stone) without him knowing it.
Brolin’s square-jawed character is strictly two-dimensional, while his fellow undercover cops are ciphers, especially Anthony Mackie and Michael Pena, whose parts are sorely underwritten.
I suppose this comes under the heading of mindless entertainment. There’s nothing wrong with that, per se, except that in this case it squanders a really juicy true-life story. What a shame.