There’s no way there was ever a police raid that busted down the door on a bunch of outer-borough mooks telling dirty jokes just as Ace Frehley’s “New York Groove” came on the hi-fi. It would be too perfect. Which is why the first moments of Guillaume Canet’s Blood Ties couldn’t open any other way. This isn’t a movie so much as a fetishist’s fever dream—a fantasia of New York crime movies from the 1970s that places the specificity of its time and place at center stage more than any actual New York crime movie from the era. The cars, clothing, and signs indicating which stores accept MasterCharge are the work of master production designers. But beyond the songs and outfits, this tale of a family torn apart by both sides of the law has nothing original to say, and uses some hackneyed plot mechanics to say it.
Billy Crudup, coiffed and mustachioed to near-Beastie Boys “Sabotage” levels, is Frank, a cop who just put away a lowlife (Matthias Schoenaerts) who happens to be shacked up with Frank’s ex (Zoe Saldana). The question of whether that was coincidental is quickly put aside when Frank’s brother Chris (Clive Owen) is finally released from prison. Frank lets Chris stay at his place and gets him a job at a garage, but their unspoken grievances whistle like a tea kettle on slow boil. As expected with cop-criminal siblings, this will end with a shootout, but since Canet is sculpting Blood Ties to stand as an epic, it actually means more than one shootout, plus a cavalcade of side characters. In a cruel twist, nearly every scene that isn’t particularly relevant to the “big score” plot—every scene that any studio executive would remove from this 128-minute movie—is far more lively than the movie’s actual core plot.
Blood Ties hardly offers trailblazing roles for women—they’re either drugged-up prostitutes, spinster sisters, or trophies—but Canet and his co-writer James Gray at least allow each of them each a moment to show some depth. Marion Cotillard, Mila Kunis, Lili Taylor, and Saldana all take what they’re given and run with it. Saldana in particular does a lot with little, letting one curt reference to her race stand for what was surely a larger elephant in the room in 1974.
Also noticeably absent is anything about religion or family origin. Chris wears a crucifix chain, but patriarch Leon (James Caan) and his daughter (Taylor) decorate the cozy Queens/Brooklyn shack with ethnically neutral plastic over the cushions, and that’s about as much info as the script offers. (The film doesn’t reveal until the third act that Chris’ baby-mama, played by Cotillard, is supposed to be an Italian immigrant.) These ellipses are fascinating to think on, though doing so in lieu of caring about Chris’ criminal schemes may not be what Canet had in mind. Blood Ties threatens, time and again, to let these lived-in characters and this well-drawn setting of police precincts and sleazy bars break away into something truly thrilling. Such great potential makes the rote final 40 minutes of coincidences, chases, dei ex machina even more heartbreaking. It would almost be easier to take if this movie were bad from the beginning.
James Gray’s involvement as co-writer is notable, as his own directorial work continues to secure him rights to Sidney Lumet’s seat at the table of big New York dramas. (His forthcoming The Immigrant, also starring Cotillard, improves on his already notable style.) While Lumet’s Serpico and Prince Of The City are influences here, as well as William Friedkin’s The French Connection, and to a lesser extent, The Godfather, Blood Ties is an adaptation of a French film (Les Liens Du Sang) in which Canet himself played the Frank character. It, in turn, was adapted from a novel, and Canet, Gray, Crudup, and Owen seem to think a larger-than-life sheen automatically comes from so many generations of culture. But simply playing something big doesn’t necessarily make it so. Using the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” during a scene where someone shoots heroin, or Cream’s “Sunshine Of Your Love” when a dark character turns darker (as it’s used in Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas) just isn’t doing the film any favors. There’s a lot of sizzle with this steak, but it can’t hide the fact that this particular hunk of meat has been chewed a hundred times before.
There’s an old Monty Python bit where an interviewer (Graham Chapman) asks a producer (Eric Idle) whether he’s concerned that his film, set in the Antarctic, is being shot in the desert. “Well, we have 28,000 cubic feet of Wintrex,” the producer responds, “which is a new white foam rubber which actually onscreen looks more like snow than snow.” The joke being that it doesn’t; according to the script, it looks awful. Blood Ties is loaded with 1970s New York crime-movie Wintrex, but, alas, only snow really looks like snow.