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Stand back, people. Stand back. Sean Penn is acting here.

Can you say, “over the top”? Can you say, “much too much”? Can you say … “rabid”?

Practically foaming with hydrophobia, Penn plays mobster Mickey Cohen in “Gangster Squad” in a performance rife with psychotic meltdowns. At first, it’s entertaining to watch as Penn bares fangs and madly masticates screenwriter Will Beall’s overcooked dialogue. But his shtick quickly wears thin. Give Penn this, though: He imparts a manic energy to a picture that is otherwise pretty pro forma.

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It’s 1949 and mob boss Cohen has L.A. under his thumb. The cops and judges are all on his payroll, and any rival who tries to muscle in on his operation gets torn to pieces — literally, in one particular instance early in the movie. What to do?

At the direction of LAPD chief William Parker (Nick Nolte, with a voice like boulders grinding underground), upright war-hero copper Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) forms an undercover squad of tough hombres whose assignment is to torch Cohen’s ill-gotten loot, trash his bookmaking operation and beat the living crap out of his hirelings. And not to let Cohen and his cronies know that it’s cops that are serving up the beatdowns.

His squad mates are kind of a Dirty Half-Dozen — misfits of one sort or another, not keen on authority and not shy about dishing out the rough stuff. They’re all stereotypes: the cool-dude black guy, handy with a switchblade (Anthony Mackie); the mustachioed old-school lawman with the old-fashioned six-shooter holstered on his hip (Robert Patrick); the dweeby tech guy who’s a whiz with surveillance equipment (Giovanni Ribisi); the fresh-faced Latino trying to win respect in a racist town (Michael Peña); and the slick, cynical Romeo (Ryan Gosling).

And then there’s Brolin’s O’Mara, square-jawed, humorless, talking in the clipped manner of “Dragnet’s” Joe Friday and wearing the same craggy, disapproving expression he wore while channeling Tommy Lee Jones in “Men in Black 3.”

Of course, there’s a standard-issue femme fatale (Emma Stone, in a red dress slit up the thigh). She and Gosling’s character have a thing going, which they both know would get them killed if Cohen ever found out about it, and why he doesn’t until very late is one of the great mysteries of the movie. They certainly aren’t very secretive about it.

Under the direction of Ruben Fleischer (“Zombieland”), tommy-gun battles abound and historical accuracy goes down in the hail of bullets.

All the people in the picture are playing at their characters, rather than actually playing the characters. Everyone looks grand in their period clothes, but they’re making make-believe that is not in the least bit believable.

Soren Andersen:

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