Review by: James Berardinelli
Reality is overrated. Or, at least, that's the sentiment many viewers will express after watching The Yards, director James Gray's lackluster follow-up to his powerful debut, Little Odessa. The reason? Gray claims that much of the material for The Yards is based on the real-life experiences of his father, who worked maintenance on New York City subway cars. It's ironic, therefore, that the film's biggest problem is the preposterousness of the script, which throws one unbelievable scenario after another at the audience. Things in The Yards become so hard to swallow that even the most easygoing movie-goers will find it hard to suspend disbelief.
Mark Wahlberg plays Leo Handler, a young man just out of jail after serving a 16 month sentence for grand theft auto. Leo's a stand-up guy; he didn't rat out his best friend, Willie (Joaquin Phoenix), on his way down. Now, Willie, who suddenly is rolling in cash, wants to pass on some of his good fortune, so he sets up a job interview between Leo and Frank (James Caan), Leo's aunt's new husband. Frank owns one of the biggest manufacture and repair companies for subway cars in New York City, and he wants Leo to take a maintenance course and learn a trade. But Willie pushes for Leo's entrance into the darker side of the business - the one that sabotages the competition. It's a faster way to make money, but it comes with a price, and, predictably, during Leo's first mission, things go disastrously wrong. A man is killed, another is badly injured, and Leo finds himself wearing the costume of a scapegoat. Only his cousin Erica (Charlize Theron) and his ailing mother (Ellen Burstyn) believe in his innocence. So he's hunted by just about everyone - not only the police, but Frank's men. Even Willie, fearing for his own safety and reputation, turns his back on his friend.
To Gray's credit, the film is well-paced and includes several sequences that are legitimately suspenseful, but the movie falls apart because the plot hangs by thin strands of credibility that frequently snap. For example, while Leo is wanted for murder and attempted murder, he is somehow able to sneak into and out of his house to visit his mother on more than one occasion. One would assume that even the most inept police department would have the premises under surveillance. The list of problems like this is extensive. Gray may have based large elements on his father's experiences, but The Yards gets nearly all of the details wrong. And, in a movie like this, details aren't just important, they're critical.
The ending is equally problematic, since it works overtime to sew up every possible plot thread, and accomplishes this in a manner that has as many credibility problems as the rest of the film. The movie reaches three distinct stopping points, but it doesn't end until the over-the-top third one. It's as if the filmmakers wrote an ending, decided it didn't meet all their needs, then decided to tack on another one. This gives the final ten minutes a choppy feel, although it will keep the average viewer wondering if and when the end credits are finally going to roll.
The casting is effective. For the three leads, Gray has selected a trio of hot young actors: Mark Wahlberg and Joaquin Phoenix as Leo and Willie (apparently, these two flip-flopped their roles just before the start of production), and Charlize Theron, who will be ubiquitous this fall (she also appears in Men of Honor as Robert DeNiro's wife and The Legend of Bagger Vance as Matt Damon's girlfriend), as Erica, the obligatory love interest. James Caan, Ellen Burstyn, and Faye Dunaway (as Erica's mother) add a few veteran names.
As an expose of corruption in New York City politics, The Yards doesn't offer anything new. As a low-key thriller about crime, punishment, and betrayal, it's competent, but not spectacular. And, as a
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