It takes a compelling central character to make a story of police corruption resonate – someone with skin in the game, as it were, putting his life on the line for a principle. A Frank Serpico – or a Danny Ciello in “Prince of the City.”
Otherwise, you wind up with just another tale of betrayal and revenge, along the lines of last year’s overwrought “We Own the Night.” It turns into a kind of algorithm: Treacherous act (A) causes unexpected tragedy (B) revealing secret corruption (C) leading to an attempt at correction (D), which results in brutal act of violence (E) that leads to cleansing act of vengeance (F). Raymond Chandler meets Rube Goldberg via Charles Babbage.
So it is with “Pride and Glory,” Gavin O’Connor’s long-a’borning story of straight-edge New York cops chasing crooked ones, all under a layer of Irish family guilt. The film apparently was shot in the 2006-07 range, then sat on a shelf while New Line dithered over what to do with it. When Warner Bros. absorbed New Line, it finally got off the dime long enough to stick the film in the Toronto Film Festival and, now, to put it into theaters.
It’s hard to understand what made New Line so nervous. “Pride and Glory” is solid and often exciting; it understands the mechanics of the form, even if the details are a little hoary. Maybe it’s just that there are no winners in these movies – so unless it’s a story that transcends the form, there’s really no track record of massive success for these films (and really, isn’t that what the studios are about these days? Blockbuster success? Grand-slam home-runs only; singles, doubles – even solo homers – need not apply.)
The film opens at a smash-mouth football game, with bully-boy Colin Farrell leading the cops on the gridiron. Then beepers and cellphones go off in the grandstand – and the scene shifts to a squalid tenement in Harlem, where four dead cops litter a bloody crime scene. First to the location is the squad leader, Francis Tierney Jr. (Noah Emmerich), followed by his father, Francis Sr. (Jon Voight), a police captain. They’re trailed by patrolman Jimmy Egan (Farrell), respectively brother-in-law and son-in-law to the two Tierneys. And he’s acting overly emotional at the deaths of his brothers in blue.
Tierney Sr. calls upon his other cop son, Ray (Edward Norton), to head up the investigation to find the cops’ killers. Ray is reluctant; he’s hidden out in missing persons since going through a jackpot of his own a few years earlier (which, of course, will be spelled out in detail later on). But he succumbs to his father’s pressure and quickly finds that the trail leads to a much-wanted drug dealer – but also back to other cops, including his brother-in-law, Jimmy.
But not before Jimmy and his police partners-in-crime (who have been playing both sides in partnering with the missing drug dealer) unleash a reign of terror of their own. Jimmy is an ends-justifies-the-means kind of guy, one who believes that, as long as he kills the bad guys (or, perhaps, murders is the right word), it doesn’t matter that he’s absconding with their money, goods and the like.
The action scenes are briskly staged but “Pride and Glory” suffers from predictability: too many unexceptional scenes of Ray loudly arguing morality-vs.-loyalty with his father and brothers.
It also has a problem with a plot device: an encounter between one of Jimmy’s guilt-ridden crew and an old friend (who happens to be a reporter for the New York Post). The reporter then is maneuvered into position to light the fuse on the film’s climax. It’s lazy screenwriting, ink-stained wretch as deus ex machina, when O’Connor and cowriter Joe Carnahan could have gotten there in a less obvious way.
Farrell and Norton are the best things about this movie, injecting it with testosterone tempered by self-doubt. But Farrell is a self-justifying sadist, while Norton is steely but never particularly compelling. Voight actually brings interesting layers to the father, never quite jumping in the direction you expect.
It’s solid movie-making, without gimmicks or a reliance on special effects, which makes it unique. But unique is hardly an audience magnet – and “Pride and Glory,” unfortunately, may show yet again that competence and skill aren’t enough to draw an audience anymore.