[24 October 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
By now, we understand the corruption festering under the thin blue line. Call it The Departed Syndrome, or the Badge-Carrying Whistleblower’s Waltz but movies portraying policeman as psychopathic frauds involved in syndicate level racketeering while the only ‘pure’ member of the squad tries to undermine their “mob” mentality have become the new serve and protect cliché. It’s what drove part of last year’s underdone We Own the Night, fueled the flawed but frenetic Street Kings, and made previous projects like LA Confidential and the classic Serpico sizzle with undeniable urban dread. Pride and Glory continues the “been there/done that” dynamic. While a thread of authenticity flows through Gavin O’Connor’s almost too hip to be square suspense thriller, the formula consistently fouls things up.
After an incident in which he covered up a case of police corruption, Ray Tierney is reluctant to get back into the day-to-day business of being a cop. But when several of his brother Francis’s men are killed in a drug deal gone bad, he joins the just formed task force investigating the deaths. This makes his bureaucrat father happy and his brother-in-law Jimmy uneasy. Seems the volatile lawman who married into the Tierney family has been running scams between criminals, offering up “professional” protection and murder for hire scams for the right price. As Ray starts to put the pieces together over why street scum like Angel Tazo escaped the melee, and what his fellow policemen have to do with the dope fiend, Jimmy comes unglued. He won’t let anything, not even connection to the clan, get in the way of his crooked cash cow. And Ray is the prime target to be taken out.
Overlong, overwrought, and overbearing at times, Pride and Glory is all ‘boys in blue’ bluster masquerading as an amped up A-list thriller. It wastes some typical Edward Norton excellence, recasts Colin Farrell as Jason Voorhees with a slightly less frightening façade, and filters everything through that Copland/Prince of the City code of close-knit clan justice clichés. We aren’t supposed to blink when we see policemen “stealing” from minority convenience store owners, or wonder why blatant acts of law enforcement illegality go unchecked. This is the Cosa Nostra as uniformed hoodlums, an often sloppy narrative that equates this kind of “made” man status with “mindlessly evil”. When Farrell threatens a snitch, a steaming hot iron positioned precariously above a baby’s head, we are supposed to gasp with horror AND hiss the villainy.
Except, Pride and Glory misses anything remotely heroic or insightful. It’s one of the most ambiguous movies ever made. When Norton’s Ray Tierney is introduced, we are given a close-up of a particularly nasty facial scar. Turns out, he took a bullet in the cheek during an infamous case. What were the specifics of that now haunting showdown? We never find out. Similarly, Ray is still in love with his soon to be ex-wife, a woman who seems to share his dimly lit torch. They even share a tender pre-Christmas heart to heart. Yet we never really understand why the two are apart, or her actual purpose in the narrative. Pride and Glory does this a lot. Francis (Noah Emmerich, giving his character’s vagueness all he can) has a spouse who is dying of cancer. Yet her only purpose in the overstuffed storyline is to play saintly and remind her hubby of what a good moral man he is.
And it continues. Jon Voight (as the taxed Tierney overlord) apparently has a drinking problem. It’s never discussed in depth. Jimmy’s wife is Ray and Francis’s sister, yet we don’t get that clear familial lineage until much later in the movie. It’s as if O’Connor (noted for his work on Miracle and Tumbleweeds) thought that a kitchen sink subplot approach was the right way to take this material. And since Narc/Smokin’ Aces’ Joe Carnahan is along to add his typical street sass law lingo bravado, we wind up with something that fails to stay focused. One minute Norton is crying with his woman on her doorstep, the next a pair of prickly policemen are pointing guns at innocent people’s heads. It’s not that this material couldn’t work, but O’Connor is definitely not the director to drive it.
Indeed, instead of setting a tone and atmosphere for his narrative, the filmmaker bounces around Manhattan like it’s just another big city backdrop. He utilizes gimmicky techniques such as shaky-cam “you are there” tracking shots to ‘electrify’ the action. All it does is make us queasy and confused. On the positive side, he does work well with actors, getting excellent work out of Norton, Emmerich and John Ortiz (as the troubled bad cop “Sandy” Santiago). Unfortunately, he doesn’t reel in Farrell, who flails here like he’s never thrashed before. His Jimmy is a jest covered in Irish beat bluster. Putting on the awkward American version of his Dublin roots, he’s internally blank while being outwardly unhinged. We keep waiting for the moment his character cracks out the hockey mask and begins splattering teens. Instead, Farrell simply glowers.
Still, for all its misguided motives, biographical blanks, and last act idiocy (a barroom brawl? A Do the Right Thing inspired riot?) there is a natural curiosity that keeps Pride and Glory from completely dissolving into pointlessness. Norton gets us to care about Ray’s quest, and we tend to follow his investigation with a sense of mystery. Of course, we know all the angles and anticipate all the roadblocks, but O’Connor and his crew aren’t overly worried about predictability. In their mind, this material - no matter how familiar it ends up being - has its own inherent ability to grip the viewer. Unfortunately, a surplus of story and an innate inevitability makes this movie so stereotypical it sputters. Acting alone can’t save something we understand by rote. Pride and Glory ends up being too similar to the sources it mimics to save itself.