There’s no questioning the aesthetics of Guillaume Canet’s handsome-looking “Blood Ties.” Set in 1970’s New York City, the film revels in low-key details: the immaculate wardrobe, the music, the feel. If anyone watches “Blood Ties” in twenty years, they would not guess it was a film released in 2014. Of course, the odds on anyone watching something so clichéd and ultimately paper-thin in story and theme are very slim. Maybe it’s a Billy Crudup Retrospective.
Crudup stars as Frank, a New York City cop with a strict sense of principle. The start of the film has a rowdy drug bust set to the joyful kick-drum syncopation of Kiss’ “New York Groove” (the soundtrack sounds incredibl…y expensive), but it’s Frank who bursts the bubble when he demands the music be cut off. He’s got associates and friends on the job, but his family, including sister Marie (Lili Taylor) and father Leon (James Caan) don’t necessarily consider him the favorite son.
Instead, that would be his brother, career criminal Chris (Clive Owen). Fresh off a prison stint, Chris is back in polite society and looking for work. The tension between the two simmers: Frank is cold towards his rowdier sibling not only because he resents the life he leads, but also because Chris has such love and a robust support system in place. Chris is the life of the party, and Frank’s irritated decision to let Chris live with him is more of an obligation than a desired decision.
It’s not hard to see where the story goes from there, what decisions the dim Chris makes and what reactions Frank might have. Canet and co-writer James Gray have packed this film with subplots, however, dragging the pleasingly simplistic 80-minute affair into two hour territory. It’s a good idea to make Frank a hypocrite by having him sleep with a woman (Zoe Saldana) married to a perp he arrested (Matthias Schoenaerts). It doesn’t work, however, when that perp is treated only as a plot device, a lingering threat that hangs over our characters’ heads. This is a ridiculously overqualified cast, and Schoenaerts is reduced to grunting and grumbling like a bulldog.
He’s also stuck with that accent which… yeah, that’s a problem here. Canet clearly took notes from Gray in recreating this mileu, which Gray more or less captured in “We Own The Night” and “The Yards.” Fidelity to the era and to New York City was clearly a priority, so why cast so many European actors, man of whom try and fail with the 70’s New York dialogue? Owen, a brusque on-screen presence, slips in and out of his thick British tongue, Schoenaerts is often unintelligible and even Crudup, an American, seems more Chicago than New York with his laconic demeanor and clipped speaking manner. As strenuously as the soundtrack puts you into that place, the actors take you right out.
The one exception is Marion Cotillard as Monica, one of Chris’ exes. Her accent is probably the most distracting in the entire film. But she acts with real fire, real passion: Monica is a scorned lover, betrayed by Chris’ bumbling criminal schemes. In the third act, when most of the plot threads have concluded, there’s a good twenty minutes where the volcanic Monica basically gets hers, and you wish the movie were about her from the start. Cotillard has recently been a muse for both Canet (“Little White Lies”) and Gray (“The Immigrant”) and it’s clear both filmmakers get the best out of her. Also strong is Caan, who brings complexity to the role of a father who clearly has a favorite son, but just can’t find a way to explicate his bias. A late scene where he speaks to Frank informally feels almost like a Caan ad-lib, so exposed, candid. When he ends the monologue by walking over and slipping back into his casual remove, calling a little kid “bananahead,” it illustrates the masks fathers wear to set an example for their sons. Caan is a treasure, even if he gives off the impression that he’s made this movie a few dozen times already.
“Blood Ties” manages to deepen its universe with the day players on the periphery of the ensemble: Griffin Dunne and Domenick Lombardozzi are genetically-engineered to appear in films like this, and no one has looked more comfortable in cheap tweed than Noah Emmerich. But Canet and Gray have style, and not insight, to bring to a story as old as time. A couple of shootouts and chases are impressive, giving the film a little bit of momentum it sorely lacks, but it’s heartbreaking that ultimately the film doesn’t work. It’s too bad for Crudup, one of this generation’s most under-appreciated leading men, trapped in another inert movie that doesn’t take advantage of his considerable looks, laser-sharp focus, or fabulous mustache. Crudup’s characters have an unmistakable conscience, one that gives his characters a moral depth other actors can’t provide. In “Blood Ties,” it’s forced to carry entire scenes like a star quarterback without an offensive line. The mustache can only do so much extra heavy lifting. [B-]