Atmospheric, worthy-but dull crime drama, with a largely wasted cast of greats.
Mark Wahlberg plays Leo Handler, a young man just out of prison, after doing a five year stretch and keeping his mouth shut. Anxious not to disappoint his mother (Ellen Burstyn), he tries to get a job with his Uncle Frank (Caan), seemingly unaware that Frank is nose-deep in the railway construction rackets. Since Leo’s old friend Willie Gutierrez (Phoenix) is one of Caan’s most trusted men, it isn’t long before Leo finds himself drawn back into a life of crime and accused of a murder he witnessed but didn’t commit.
This is one of those films you really want to like, but can’t. It’s extremely similar to City Hall, a now-forgotten 1996 film starring John Cusack and Al Pacino, in that it has a similar theme (corruption in high places, betrayal) and looks great, but fails to truly engage as a story. This isn’t for lack of trying though.
The film LOOKS great – the director’s self-confessedly obsessive attention to light and shadow really pays off in certain scenes, although eventually you get the feeling that the frequent onscreen power cuts are just an excuse to show off. The soundtrack is very impressive too, with Gray making a courageous decision not to underline every dramatic moment, but to go for full-on atmosphere instead, using Horst’s The Planets, amongst other things.
Sadly, however, the story just isn’t gripping enough, and has been told much better elsewhere, notably in 50s classic On The Waterfront, which haunts this film in every frame - indeed, substitute the docks for the railway yards of the title and it could almost be the same movie.
As regards the performances, the biggest problem is that Gray has James Caan, Ellen Burstyn AND Faye Dunaway in his cast and gives them almost nothing to do. Similarly, Wahlberg mumbles through the film with The World's Stupidest Haircut, Phoenix has a ridiculous nude scene which serves no dramatic purpose whatsover, and Charlize Theron appears to have nicked all of Angelina Jolie's make-up.
Actually, both Phoenix and Theron acquit themselves well, but Wahlberg's character is very frustrating - just when it looks like it's going to get exciting he does the last thing you're expecting, which, although shocking, doesn't really work the way the director intended. There’s also an unforgiveably campy moment with Theron’s character that, similarly, fails to convince dramatically and almost ruins the film outright.
In short, then, don’t rush to see this, as it’s nothing that you won’t have seen done better elsewhere. File under ‘worthy-but-dull’ and wait till it turns up on TV in 2004.