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IN SHORT: What strikes us a a terrific story is killed by one lesser performance. [Rated R for language, violence and a scene of sexuality. 116 minutes]
On a run down street in Queens, New York stands a lone apartment house. In a small apartment on the second floor, there is a party going on, 'cuz Leo Handler (Mark Wahlberg) is coming home! A good kid that made a dumb mistake and did sixteen months for it, Leo is determined to fix his life and stay the course. Val (Ellen Burstyn), the mom who raised Leo as a solo act is sick and now it's the son's turn to provide. Aunt Kitty's (Faye Dunaway) new husband Frank (James Caan), runs a subway repair yards and Leo goes looking for help. "Uncle" Frank offers money on the side, suggesting that Leo attend machinist's school and get a career. But Leo doesn't have the time it takes to go to school and too much pride to take the money. His best friend Willie Gutierrez (Joaquin Phoenix) is doing real well, working with the yard's "suppliers". Leo asks to help out on that end and though Frank doesn't like the idea, Willie takes Leo under his wing.
Uncle Frank knows what Willie is doing. Uncle Frank cannot tell Leo to stay the hell away from Willie because that would admit that he knows of wrongdoing. So Leo tags along and discovers that "handling" the suppliers means making payoffs of money or tickets or clothes or cash and, very late at night, sabotaging the work of the competition. Before he can get out of the way, Leo is in way too deep in a story that pits family loyalties against personal loyalties with the ever popular criminal undertones running through it.
We were wondering why we weren't sucked in whole hog to this great set up and have to conclude that it is because Wahlberg's shell-shocked character, even when he is at his most riled up, is still essentially shell-shocked. The emotions are kept so close to the vest that this audience member couldn't get into his skin; couldn't get sympathetic on anything more than a "OK, where do we go next?" basis. Don't know if that was Wahlberg's choice or a decision by director James Gray or a combination of the two, but it left us out in the cold. As did the funereal sound of the orchestral soundtrack.
It's too bad because
Dunaway and Caan and Phoenix do terrific work in their own subplots involving
almost inevitable addition of Gutierrez to the family by way of marriage to Kitty's
daughter Erica (Charlize Theron). Erica doesn't like Frank. Frank knows
to stay out of the coming mother-daughter battle, even though he knows more than
both of 'em put together. It's a subplot that works well, though another story
twist, involving Erica, Willie and Leo fails to fire. One triangle with two weak
sides stands out like a black eye on an otherwise flawless face.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to The Yards, he would have paid...
Rent it, at minimum for the sheer satisfaction of seeing James Caan in a big leather chair, a la The Godfather. At maximum, for the chance that Wahlberg's performance will work for you. That being the case, I think you'll find that The Yards delivers the goods.
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