It's 1949 in Los Angeles, where east-coast gangster Mickey Cohen (Penn) has upped and moved to the west, practically taking over the entire state with his drug, prostitution and gambling empires. The city's Chief of police (Nolte) has had enough, so he tasks Sgt O'Mara (Brolin) with setting up an off-the-books, not-exactly-legal squad to take Cohen down. Using vaguely illegal surveillance and completely illegal violence, O'Mara's team - all played by familiar faces including Anthony Mackie, Robert Patrick, Giovanni Ribisi and Michael Pena - get Cohen’s attention by halting his heroine supply and disrupting his casinos. On top of that, another of O’Mara's team (Gosling) starts up a relationship with Cohen's girlfriend (Stone), which obviously won't end well for anyone involved.
Director Ruben Fleischer does not seem an automatic fit for an epic gangster flick - his CV to date includes two comedies; Zombieland and 30 Minutes Or Less -but he does bring an interesting visual flair to proceedings. Scenes seamlessly zip between slow-motion and normal speed, shoot outs are edited with smash-cuts to the gunshots, cameras are mounted to the actors to heighten moments of tension; visually the movie is never less than arresting. Unfortunately, the story is nothing new, and if you've seen The Untouchables, then you’ve basically already seen Gangster Squad, with that classic's plot beats followed to the letter. This is a very average tale that happens to be told by a fantastic cast... and what a cast!
O'Mara's supporting team bring most of the laughs, whereas everyone else brings the gravitas; Brolin does his best as a square-jawed hero with a pregnant wife at home, the sparks fly between Gosling and Stone (still possessing that easy, sexy chemistry they had in Crazy Stupid Love), and Penn looks like he's having fun for the first time in decades as a truly intimidating bad-guy. But from the moment you meet the cast, you can immediately tell who is going to live, who is going to die, and exactly how this story is going to end. There is some brainless fun to be had here, but with a cast this amazing, "brainless fun" seems like a bit of a waste.