Passive-aggressive The Yards just goes through the motions
Apparently having exhausted the familial criminal intrigue of America's Italian-American population, filmmakers are on the prowl for new, fresher crime syndicates. In The Yards, set in New York's geographic armpit of Queens, it's a rogue subway dynasty — the Electric Rail Company — that keeps an incestuously tight hold on the local transportation racket. For years, that company's don, Uncle Frank (ex-Godfather paisan James Caan appears to have launched a spin-off industry), has garnered all of the city's multi-million dollar subway repair and maintenance contracts by bribing officials with Mets tickets, fur coats and the all-American inducement of cold hard cash. Frank's railway racket doesn't exactly have the movie glamour of prostitution or drug dealing, but it's important to note that a film like Chinatown made even a waterworks dispute seem apocalyptic and sinister. The Yards, by contrast, tends to give the double-dealing of the metropolitan subway racket the excitement value of C-Span or a city council meeting.Enter Leo Handler (Mark Wahlberg) to upend his Uncle Frank's sleazy empire. Though "upend" is a fairly active term for the passive-aggressive way Leo shakes things up; sort of like the way a banana peel on a subway track leads to derailment. Leo just happens to be around, and by his mere no-luck-but-bad-luck presence brings Frank's well-oiled machine of bribery and payoffs grinding to a halt.
Recently released from a 16-month prison stint for taking the sole blame for his buddies' car theft, poor, luckless Leo is a dyed-in-the-wool patsy whose own code of honor prevents him from ratting out his buddies, even as they exploit his misdirected ethics for their own gain. As a recent New York Times article points out, Wahlberg himself served time as a teenager in the Big House and thus knows lock-up from a quiet suite at the Four Seasons. His Leo, therefore, wears a believably world-weary, beaten-down expression when he returns to poorly named, perpetually gloomy Sunnyside just in time to repeat the same mistake that landed him in the slammer in the first place.
This time Leo gets mixed up with boyhood chum Willie (Joaquin Phoenix), who is Frank's right-hand man in the palm-greasing racket. When Willie and pals pull one of their extracurricular corporate espionage capers, destroying a rival subway fleet, the plan goes sour; one cop is beaten into a coma and another man shot, and Leo is left holding the bag.
The Yards is not an incompetent film, only a lackluster one, whose story has little meat on its bones. Beyond establishing the how and why of this particular dirty-dealing world and its layers of corruption, The Yards' often tedious exposition keeps one guessing when the real intrigue is going to kick into gear.
The Yards also boasts a wan romantic triangle involving Leo, who once loved Willie's fiancee (and Frank's step-daughter) Erica (Charlize Theron), and Leo's mother (Ellen Burstyn), who suffers from a weak heart. But these are the conventional markers of any gangster tale — beloved mama and the forbidden love. Director James Gray (Little Odessa) has done a good job of painting Queens a la Last Exit to Brooklyn as a desolate junkyard of graffiti and centuries-old factories, where every interior is bathed in the same grubby, mustard shades. The only jolt of color in the whole movie seems to come from the Electric Rail Company's red neon sign — a beacon of Jezebel corruption in the polluted atmosphere.
As the sickly mother and her well-married (to Uncle Frank) sister, Burstyn and Faye Dunaway are given more psychological importance in wardrobe than they are significant character development. They are swathed in shades of brown, every facial line emphasized in harsh lighting, every trace of beauty hidden beneath glasses and dowdy garb. In fact, Gray's entire film seems to expend more effort on set dressing than on constructing three-dimensional characters. As if fatigued by all of this gloomy corruption and beige funk, Leo and Willie — the ostensible movers and shakers of the film — walk around in a narcotic haze. A remarkably restrained — often to the point of being comatose — film in terms of acting style and violence, The Yards may make even the most pacifist moviegoer a little giddy with bloodlust when these two friends at increasingly tangential ends engage in a realistically prolonged, huffing fist fight on the street outside Leo's mother's scabby apartment. Finally, some action.
Wahlberg, who played a pitch-perfect lamb-amidst-the-wolves in Boogie Nights, resurrects that pose in The Yards. But his character is one of the film's real enigmas, undernourished and vague, who keeps the film from ever hitting its stride. Had he been given some additional bits of business beyond his devotion to a sickly mother and his inexplicably dopey, unflagging trust in his crook pals, the film might have risen above superficial storytelling. A sweet but apparently dumb kid being lured, against his will, back into a life of crime, Leo is too passive a hero to hang a film on. As it is, The Yards often feels like a dress rehearsal. Its characters speak the lines and go through the motions, but there are enormous hunks of motivation and mysteries as to the story's underlying intent left out of The Yards.