Cliches curse fam­ily of cops

David Stratton

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

WHEN in doubt, film and tele­vi­sion pro­duc­ers turn to cops: from the ear­li­est days of cin­ema, films about the po­lice have been churned out on a reg­u­lar ba­sis. The law­men can be calmly ded­i­cated and self-sac­ri­fic­ing ( The Blue Lamp) or com­i­cal ( The Key­stone Cops and their many suc­ces­sors); th­ese days they’re more of­ten than not cor­rupt. So it’s no sur­prise that

which has been gath­er­ing dust on the shelf for a con­sid­er­able time ( it bears a 2007 copy­right), looks very fa­mil­iar; there are el­e­ments of John Sin­gle­ton’s Four Broth­ers ( 2005) and strong sim­i­lar­i­ties to the more re­cent James Gray film, We Own the Night . Both were a great deal bet­ter than this.

On the sur­face, it seems promis­ing, not least be­cause of a strong cast that in­cludes Jon Voight as a vet­eran Ir­ish-Amer­i­can cop Fran­cis Tier­ney, who has risen to the po­si­tion of Chief of Man­hat­tan De­tec­tives, and Ed­ward Nor­ton and Noah Em­merich as his two sons, Ray­mond and Fran­cis Jr, who are both mem­bers of the force.

Ac­cord­ing to the screen­play by Joe Car­na­han and di­rec­tor Gavin O’Con­nor, this po­lice unit is clan­nish, self-pro­tec­tive and mildly cor­rupt, in­for­ma­tion which is nei­ther fresh nor star­tling. Fran­cis Sr’s daugh­ter Me­gan ( Lake Bell), is mar­ried to yet an­other cop, Jimmy Ea­gan ( Colin Far­rell), a wild card whose be­hav­iour trig­gers pre­dictable strain within the fam­ily.

This is not a film that finds some­thing new to say on the sub­ject of po­lice who pro­tect one an­other when they should be pro­tect­ing so­ci­ety; nor does it bring any fresh­ness to the par­al­lel theme of brother against brother.

But even if th­ese cliches had been given new in­sights in the screen­play, O’Con­nor’s ap­proach to the ma­te­rial was go­ing to be prob­lem­atic. Not only does De­clan Quinn pro­vide some un­nec­es­sary queasy-cam photography ( Ray­mond lives on a boat which is con­stantly rock­ing), O’Con­nor seems to rel­ish the vi­o­lence and sor­did­ness to ex­cess. The di­a­logue is filled with ex­ple­tives, the vi­o­lence is crude, and there’s a hor­ri­ble scene in which a baby is threat­ened with a hot iron; this is one of the nas­tier movie mo­ments in re­cent mem­ory.

The story un­folds dur­ing the Christ­mas hol­i­days and starts when four cops, un­der the com­mand of Fran­cis Jr, are killed dur­ing a drug bust that goes wrong: it seems that some­body in­side the depart­ment tipped off the vil­lains. Ray, who has been work­ing on miss­ing per­sons files since some ( dimly ex­plained) prob­lem in his re­cent past, is per­suaded by his fa­ther to take over the in­ves­ti­ga­tion into what went wrong. It’s no sur­prise, to the au­di­ence at least, that the trail quickly leads to Ray’s brother, Fran­cis, who, if not di­rectly im­pli­cated, has cer­tainly done some cov­er­ing up to pro­tect his brother-in-law.

From then on the film fol­lows an ut­terly pre­dictable course of fa­mil­ial and pro­fes­sional con­flict, though the cli­max — which bor­rows heav­ily from tra­di­tional west­ern movies — is pretty lu­di­crous. The one at­tempt at orig­i­nal­ity is to de­pict the fam­i­lies of th­ese so-called pro­tec­tors of the pub­lic in more depth than usual, par­tic­u­larly the wife of Fran­cis Jr, Abby ( Jen­nifer Ehle), who has ter­mi­nal can­cer and is un­der­go­ing chemo­ther­apy. But in the end this em­pha­sis on Abby’s suf­fer­ing and her hus­band’s agony over her ill­ness seems a bit like spe­cial plead­ing.

The ac­tors in Pride and Glory do their best with this cliched ma­te­rial, but the film is so grim, ugly and mis­er­able that it’s dif­fi­cult to sym­pa­thise with even the most pos­i­tive char­ac­ters.

* * * FROM the sup­pos­edly grim re­al­ity of the world of the po­lice in Pride and Glory it comes as a slight re­lief to ex­pe­ri­ence the graphic novel fan­tasy of in which a mur­dered po­lice­man re­turns as a masked crime fighter: more fa­mil­iar ma­te­rial. Will Eis­ner’s comic strip was first pub­lished in news­pa­pers in the early 1940s and has been brought to the screen by Frank Miller, also au­thor of the fa­mous comic book se­ries on which 2005’ s Sin City was based ( a se­quel is in the works). Miller uses the same graphic de­sign for The Spirit : the film is es­sen­tially in black and white, with flashes of red, such as the hero’s luminous neck-tie, used for dra­matic ef­fect.

Miller’s ap­proach to the ma­te­rial couldn’t be more dif­fer­ent from Christo­pher Nolan’s The Dark Knight , last year’s best comic-strip adap­ta­tion. Where Nolan took the themes se­ri­ously, Miller is con­tent to camp them up in an an­noy­ing, know­ing way. The di­a­logue is ex­cru­ci­at­ing and the nudge-nudge vis­ual jokes over­done. In the process good ac­tors, in­clud­ing Sa­muel L. Jack­son, who plays the vil­lain­ous Oc­to­pus, and Scar­lett Jo­hans­son, as his mis­tress Silken Floss, are en­cour­aged to over­act em­bar­rass­ingly, while Gabriel Macht, in the ti­tle role, is a blank page.

Ar­ro­gantly as­sum­ing that his au­di­ence is fa­mil­iar with the char­ac­ters, Miller be­gins with some in­com­pre­hen­si­ble action in which the nat­tily dressed Macht, Fe­dora firmly in place, leaps across the rooftops of Cen­tral City to a ren­dezvous with his neme­sis, which takes place in some sort of muddy river.

Af­ter an in­con­clu­sive en­counter, the film pauses to ex­plore, in puerile flash­back, the teenage ro­mance be­tween Denny Colt ( Johnny Sim­mons), the fu­ture Spirit, and win­some Sand Saref ( Sey­chelle Gabriel); Sand will grow up into the volup­tuous Eva Men­des and give the masked hero lots of grief.

There is no short­age of beau­ti­ful women in­volved: Sarah Paul­son’s doc­tor and Stana Katic’s po­lice­woman both have de­signs on The Spirit, though he re­mains true — as he keeps telling us — to his one true love: the city it­self. Just to com­pound the clunky bor­row­ing from leg­endary char­ac­ters, there’s even a lady in the lake ( Jaime King), though her part in the pro­ceed­ings re­mains murky.

Silly and shal­low, The Spirit nev­er­the­less looks great: Miller’s back­ground as an artist was un­doubt­edly an im­por­tant fac­tor in achiev­ing the strik­ing vis­ual ef­fects. It’s just when the hu­man char­ac­ters dom­i­nate the action that the film sinks like a stone.

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