Ah, the nostalgic mob drama. No matter the brutality, the blood, or the sheer fear that shape the memory, movies and TV tend to make life in the mob a growth experience, bathed in golden light and accompanied by Sinatra tunes—or now, per The Departed, the Rolling Stones. Just so, Brooklyn Rules begins with a snatch of Stones, “Sympathy for the Devil.” The triteness bodes ill.
Shot in 2004, Michael Corrente’s film is doubly dated. It begins much like its many predecessors, with a voiceover that introduces three boys in school uniforms. “In Catholic school, they taught us that Jesus died for our sins.” However, continues Michael (Freddie Prinze Jr.) in voiceover, “In Brooklyn, we learned of another sacrifice, taking a life. I guess you could call this a confession, except that I’m not asking for forgiveness.” So now you know: Michael’s story is the same one you’ve heard before. As he describes his two best friends, you see all three acting out before a predictably dour nun. Released from the pew, they dash out into the sunshine, running smack into a manifestation of that Brooklyn angle their lives, the gangster Cesar (Alec Baldwin) beating the crap out of someone who’s wronged him. Two steps later, they’re beneath the bridge’s shadow, where they discover a body in a car, complete with bloody holes in its head.
The kids don’t much worry about the murder, but instead select various, character-defining items to take home from the scene (cigarettes and a lighter, a puppy, and a gun). Cut ahead a few years to 1985, and it turns out that vain Carmine (Scott Caan) is still smoking, Bobby (Jerry Ferrara) still loves his dog, and Michael has stowed his secret gun in a drawer while he attends Columbia University, with plans for law school. “For me,” he offers by way of explaining his plainly perverse interest, “school was a way out of the neighborhood, a chance to be something. I figured, with my natural ability to bullshit with a total lack of conscience, I should be a lawyer.”
This does set Michael apart from his friends, but they maintain the closeness this by-the-numbers movie requires. Each night, they regroup, gambling at the neighborhood temple, pursuing “broads” and one-night stands at a club called Pastels. Michael keeps on remembering—his approval of Bobby’s ritual praying every time he spots a Virgin Mary on someone’s lawn (apparently, frequently in their neighborhood), as well as his longtime monogamous relationship and honorable aspiration to be a postal worker. At the same time, Michael worries about Carmine, who has “fallen in love—with himself.” Increasingly, Carmine is hanging out with actual gangsters, including Cesar (now identified as a captain in the Gambino crime family) and getting tied up with black market business (that is, stealing truckloads of merchandise from local vendors, including Cabbage Patch dolls and board games).
As Carmine has always been quick to settle disputes with violence, he looks destined to settle for mafia smalltimeness. Michael argues with him, imagining that Carmine should also want to “get out,” but Carmine sees a different horizon. “The whole world is crazy,” he insists. “They shot the fucking Pope right in the Vatican.” There is no “out,” in other words, only more of the same. Michael hangs onto his belief that there is an alternative, while the movie provides archival TV footage of John Gotti and Paul Castellano, by way of cursory historical context for his dilemma.
You see how urgently he needs his belief during a contrivance set in the butcher shop where Michael works after school (even the fact that he works in the shop is a contrivance, but okay). A couple of bad decisions—by Michael and then Carmine—lead to the underscoring-and-italicizing of the costs associated with being Cesar’s boy. A Vietnam war veteran, self-identifying as tough enough to take on the mob by the VC ear he keeps on his neck, serves as an object lesson for both boys, when Cesar punishes his disrespect by slicing off his ear with a meat slicer. Blood splatters on Michael’s face, Carmine looks vaguely bothered, and so the point is made: Cesar is a “horrible man, a killer,” as Michael puts it. In case you haven’t been paying attention.
And in case you miss that version of the message, the movie offers yet another, in the form of the Ideal Blond Michael meets in his political science class, Ellen (Mena Suvari). When she’s not busy fulfilling her own stereotype (she’s from Connecticut, her interest in Michael is initiated when she spots him cheating on the midterm exam, whereupon she calls him on it, then kisses him, so very tediously), Ellen is delivering speeches designed to inspire her man to rise above his humble, foul-mouthed, frequently immoral background. You cheat, she tells him, “Because deep inside you think you’re not good enough and if you don’t play by the rules, you never have to find out it might be true.” He has a not-so-bad comeback (“Where’d you learn that, Psychology Today?”), but Ellen has done her job.
That might be the greatest disappointment in this movie so rife with disappointments. The boys in nostalgic mob dramas are always granted sensational, big-action revelations. The girls, however, tend to serve as one-dimensional plot markers for the boys’ trajectories (Carmela Soprano and Goodfellas’ Karen Hill being remarkable exceptions.) Though Ellen embodies the way “out” for Michael, though he must yet endure some decidedly boy business that has nothing to do with her. You won’t be surprised to learn this is conveyed by a series of mob movie clichés, including the Showdown in the Men’s Room, the Poignant Final Prayer, and the Overhead Shots of Bloody Bodies. A trooper throughout, Ellen comes through with her own cliché too: Women Crying on a Couch at the Wake.