Any moviemaker who ventures into the sewers of New York City corruption will find Sidney Lumet's wet footprints. In classics like The Pawnbroker, Serpico and Q&A, this streetwise film master has explored, among other things, individual morality in the face of big-city vice and individual transcendence of ethnic conflict. Other moviemakers before and since have explored this territory, but Lumet owns it.
The Yards, directed by a 29-year-old New Yorker named James Gray (Little Odessa) and co-written by Long Islander Matt Reeves (The Pallbearer), feels like Lumet Lite mixed with a dash of The Godfather. That's not the worst thing you could say about a melodrama of sin and redemption set in a scummy world of crooked transit-authority contracts, graft-ridden politicians, saboteurs and murderers. It's just that Gray doesn't quite summon up the knowingness, or the ferocity, or the unexpected tenderness of a Lumet running full-throttle on the New York pavement, much less the tragic grandeur of a Coppola.
But The Yards is also far more engaging than most movies released this year, thanks in large part to a terrific cast headed up by Boogie Nights star Mark Wahlberg, Joaquin Phoenix, Charlize Theron and that long-familiar figure of the five boroughs, James Caan. Gray has also added veterans Faye Dunaway and Ellen Burstyn in supporting roles, and that does no harm to the film's authenticity. When, in the course of these two hours, you find yourself stuffed into an overheated Queens kitchen, you believe you're in a Queens kitchen, because the rhythms of the small talk around the table are just right. When you wind up at a borough president's birthday party in a high school gym, it looks and sounds real, right down to the glad-handing by the neighborhood predators and the roses in their lapels. The acting is so fine that the whole scene feels like a documentary.
Our hero, like so many movie heroes before him, is a freshly sprung ex-con who's determined to go straight but is dangerously susceptible to the temptations of money and power. Lean and hungry Leo Handler (Wahlberg) has just taken a fall for friends, kept his mouth shut and done sixteen months for auto theft. Now that he's home, the boys are pouring him a cold one and hatching plots. How long can it be until our Leo gets tangled up in shady business deals and a killing in a subway depot called the Sunnyside Yards? The ominous screech of steel wheels on a ribbon of track gives us the first clue.
Leo's bad company includes his best friend, Willie Gutierrez (Phoenix), who turns out to be a bagman for Frank Olchin (Caan), a well-connected equipment contractor who also happens to be Leo's uncle. Willie's workload includes distributing well-stuffed envelopes to well-dressed public officials, playing push-and-shove with the boss's competitors and generally seeing to it that Electric Rail Corporation stays one step ahead when it comes to lucrative deals with the city.
"Life is about favors," Willie tells Leo, who gets the idea very quickly. For his part, Big Frank oversees the delicate balance of power that keeps him on top of the game. Meanwhile, these young filmmakers glory in every moment their veteran star is on screen, not least because they've seen a few movies. With his pencil-line mustache, extravagant jowls and careful speech patterns, the 62-year-old Caan reminds us much more these days of the wise, battle-weary old bear Marlon Brando gave us in Godfather I than of his muscular, hotheaded son. This Sonny-becomes-Vito effect is weirdly satisfying, and it's distinctly underscored by the dark-gold opulence and shadowy menace that director of photography Harris Savides contributes to the film's look. If Caan is copping from Brando, Savides has surely studied every frame of Gordon Willis.
The Yards, of course, is no more The Godfather than it is Serpico, but I found myself taking perverse pleasure in seeing Lumet's sense of evil and Coppola's great stylistic tropes reproduced by moviemakers young enough to be Connie Corleone's grandchildren.
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Leo's quandary is also a bit derivative, but convincing enough. Caught in a web of violence, he's soon on the run -- from the authorities on one flank and the self-serving members of his own family on the other. Besieged by doubts, this child of the streets must at last decide what's right -- whether to uphold the ancient code of silence or snitch out a nest of rats who have decided to kill him. En route, director Gray provides some dramatic moments any big-city filmmaker would be proud of. Willie and Leo's midnight mishaps in the subway yards are pure street, and the political birthday party (note the great cameo by singer Steve Lawrence as the crooked borough president) is dirty fun. But for my money, the most masterful scene has poor Leo creeping through the blue-green corridors of a run-down Queens hospital, searching for a cop he has critically wounded and has now been ordered to finish off. Sidney Lumet himself would appreciate the high physical and moral tension Gray produces, as well as a wealth of dead-on detail -- a yawning night nurse, a dying patient (the wrong one, it turns out) behind a curtain, footsteps echoing on the linoleum, the fear in Leo's eyes.
By commercial necessity, I suppose, The Yards also contains a touch of frustrated romance. Leo has a thing for Willie's sultry girlfriend, Erica (Charlize Theron), despite the fact that she's apparently his first cousin. When Leo becomes a fugitive, it's Erica who stands by him, and while that's serviceable character development, the entire triangle seems a bit artificial. Theron is fine, but the moviemakers might have been better off giving more screen time to Dunaway (Big Frank's deluded wife) and Burstyn (Leo's beleaguered mother), both of whom come across as authentic blue-collar Queens strivers.
For Caan's shtick alone, The Yards is worthwhile, but we may also be witnessing the emergence, in Gray, of a young filmmaker who's just starting to find the range. The self-consciousness of Little Odessa (all about Russian mobsters in Brighton Beach) has now given way to inspired mimicry, and we can likely expect more assurance and individuality next time around. For now, bask in a terrific cast playing a Lumet-inspired tune straight off the streets of New York.