One doesn’t have to be an analyst or expert in all things cinema to note the decline of certain genres and niches within the film-making machine. While comic-book movies and superhero franchises have risen to soaring heights over the last fifteen years, we have seen a dramatic drop in other, classic outputs, seemingly to make way. A perfect example of this would be the procedural crime thriller, tales of murder investigation and corruption, a hallmark of hard boiled fiction from the 1970’s onwards that by now have tailed off. It says a lot that the most recent archetypal release from said field was last year’s Broken City, a box office and critical failure from highly rated scribe Stephen Knight. A production line that once gave us the likes of Chinatown, Serpico and Seven is now decrepit and seemingly unfit for purpose.
Not only is this genre starved, it is starved of quality to justify any lingering popularity or acclaim. A chicken and the egg debate about which came first, the slump or the audience weariness, is best settled by hard evidence that aside from Martin Scorcese’s The Departed, a great cop thriller hasn’t emerged from Hollywood since the early noughties. There have been a handful of efforts, but precious few successes and nothing that stands the test of time. Line up the hits against the misses such as We Own The Night and Brooklyn’s Finest. This is particularly frustrating when such a film emerges that should really have been a shot in the arm but was instead a bullet in the head. Step forward the hugely promising and ultimately disappointing Pride and Glory, a true Jekyll and Hyde.
Conceived of as long ago as 1999 and dogged by constant road blocks and changes (Mark Wahlberg and Hugh Jackman were originally mooted for the main roles) namely the fallout of 9/11 and the inevitably wrathful backlash of depicting the NYPD in a dark light, this story of a family of cops beset by corruption, conflict and legacy eventually wrapped in 2006 yet sat on the shelf for two years amidst squabbling between makers and distributors, finally seeing the light of day in 2008. Penned and directed by Gavin O’Connor (latterly of Warrior fame), with a then hot property Joe Carnahan giving the script a once-over, it was once touted as a big release yet was neglected and, when eventually given a run, largely ignored. Lack of interest may have been one factor, but such a long and niggling process between post and debut speaks of greater problems.
These problems are quickly evident when one actually sits down and watches the film. For all its rewrites and development delays, time that really should have ensured an ironed out product if nothing else, it proves to be an occasionally tantalizing but consistently frustrating piece, striving for emotional heft but falling hard at all the wrong beats. Standout scenes envisioned and directed with ferocious verve are followed by trite B-movie dialogue exchanges and by-the-numbers plotting. Bold and original takes on well worn material lead only to the next bend, a predictable twist or inevitable moment of clarity. Frequently one actor sears the screen with his passion and drive but is placed opposite a fellow thespian here to pick up his paycheck and with little care for output. It is a poorly mixed sauce, eye-wateringly strong in some regards but blandly indistinct in others. Neither the good nor the bad outweigh the other and we are left with a case of what might have been.
What makes Pride and Glory worthy of discussion and a great candidate for surgery is the positives, and seeing where they are diluted. Although the film was criticized for having a formulaic plot, this is mostly an observation of how the story is played out thematically. On the face of things, it has a great central premise which is ripe for both thriller and drama material. Based around O’Connor’s personal ties (his father was a cop, and he was given large access and insight into the workings of the institution), the core theme is how similar the NYPD is to a family, thus we use the quintessentially Irish-American Tierney clan as an inside track into the workings of the black and blue. This is a branching river of blood tying together the main characters.
The patriarch is Francis Tierney Sr. (Jon Voight), an aging big name in the force whose devotion to the uniform has transferred to his home, making for a blindsided perspective based on old ideals rather than present reality. His first son Francis Jr. (Noah Emmerich) has thus become a station chief, inheriting his pop’s charisma and too much of his professional loyalty, which has made him a father to his men but also blind to their misdemeanors, distracted as he is by his wife’s (Jennifer Ehle) battle with cancer. The second son Ray (Edward Norton) was once the star but his quiet intelligence and integrity compromised him and his career, making him bitter, separated from a marriage and without the stomach for beat duty. The joker in the pack is the husband of their sister, Colin Farrell’s salt of the earth cop Jimmy Egan, whose brotherly love has made him an unofficial third brother and in the process put him in a blind spot regarding illegal doings.
These four characters, and the actors playing them, form the foundations of the story and the film, and it is perhaps telling that two thrive while two flounder. Surprisingly, the biggest revelations are Emmerich, previously a stranger to such meaty roles in big releases, and Farrell, whose comeback from career stutter coincided with the film’s delayed release. They are chalk and cheese performances, Emmerich a picture of genial leadership and tortured, silent dilemma and Farrell a force of nature imbued with charisma and ferocity, worryingly composed in straddling the line between decent morals and treasonous brigandry in the five boroughs.
However, Voight has entered a stage of his career where, like peers such as Pacino, De Niro and Hoffman, he no longer has a hunger for the material and thus presents his own natural gravitas but little else, giving a performance that can easily be described as phoned in. He isn’t helped by the script (more on that later), which aside from an amusingly boozy Christmas dinner gives him nothing but trailer fodder dialogue and empty rhetoric at key emotional moments. Most disappointing of all is Norton, who for all his talents is sadly miscast here, a nasty scar and harsh goatee unable to mask his unsuitability for a role that requires more intensity, more grit and a far greater authority. It doesn’t help that while Emmerich looks the part of his father’s son, Norton appears to be of far distant stock, small, dark and wiry where his bloodline towers blondely. It may sound like an unfair nitpick, but is indicative of a performance that simply doesn’t gel and stands out for all the wrong reasons as a result.
Without meaning to impugn the clear talent of these two men, it does feel like a quick recast is necessary for respective reasons; in Voight’s case to avoid wasted pathos (interestingly, Voight was a fall back after originally cast Nick Nolte dropped out through injury), while replacing Norton is opting for cold logic and realism over marquee. At the very least, it would alleviate some of the ridiculousness present in the climax, where Ray and a packed Jimmy spar one on one in an Irish bar and Ray illogically wins. It is still a poor scene, however. And this is the next pressing problem, one that goes deeper than casting, the ability of the writing to violently turn from inspired to absurd or tediously unoriginal in a heartbeat.
There are three strands in the film; Ray’s investigation into the deaths of four officers during a drug bust; Francis Jr. discovering the levels of corruption in his precinct; Jimmy and his men trying to tie up loose ends and covering their tracks. While the latter two are almost uniformly excellent – the second in particular producing some superb scenes filled with blood and grit and culminating in a powerhouse confrontation between Franny and Jimmy as two arcs meet – Ray’s workload produces only a couple of nice moments but is largely a damp squib. While Franny is rooting out one of his part time hoodlums in his own station and Ray is threatening to put an iron to a baby’s face (an extraordinary moment), Ray is on his leaking houseboat sharing cliched epitaphs with Papa Tierney, one liners aiming at blurb material that are strung together into a conversation. This sequence is badly in need of rewriting, forming a more cohesive narrative (the inquiry is a disjointed experience) and more importantly, introducing some better dialogue.
The collision of the Jimmy and Ray arcs occurs when they both catch up with the criminal everybody wants, drug dealer Angel Tezo. While Jimmy took a bounty on the hoodlum’s head, Ray is going about this honestly. So of course he gets there second to find that Jimmy and his guys are already in the process of torturing Tezo to death. This is where these plots head south; Jimmy kills Tezo and frames Ray, hoping for a whitewash that will mean everybody remains blameless…probably. In retrospect, it is hard to imagine just what Jimmy hoped would come out of this outcome, since he effectively removes any doubt over his complicity in front of the one cop on the case who suspects, and would be willing to expose, this level of misdeed.
An awkwardly played out IA case, featuring Farrell’s only misstep during a De Niro channeling, foul mouthed ‘confession’, is a result of the indecisive and uninteresting plot development. It pushes forward the great ‘anguished decision’ phase for Ray even though we know which side he will choose, thus eliminating any potential suspense. The concurrent plight of John Ortiz’s fired cop-for-hire Sandy highlights the dip in dramatic quality. Here we find the film trying for hard drama while simultaneously taking easy options on how to portray the characters and their choices, a toxic combination. For their to be real substance, there has to be doubt and there has to be palpable strife.
A far better approach would surely be for Ray to stumble upon the scene of Jimmy’s retribution after the fact, with Tezo already dead. He doesn’t know for sure that his blue brothers committed the act, but all signs point to it and it is this lingering suspicion, and the cover up of Tezo’s autopsy report (the baton down the throat torture being omitted from the official report for instance) further heightens his belief that yes, Jimmy is a bad guy and that yes, he killed the suspect and was probably indirectly responsible for the death of the four cops. Sandy’s suicide and heartbroken confession to a reporter, who later contacts Ray, adds more pieces for him to put together. It would also provide a far stronger tie between Ray and his brother Franny, who knows what Ray only suspects and is in a position to act, even if he doesn’t want to. This is real conflict, pushing the characters into acts they know they could well regret. Doing the right thing shouldn’t be simple.
While this key point is badly in need of a fix, the disparity and inconsistency in quality is best summarized by the film’s two-pronged climax; Ray has his showdown with Jimmy in a bar, by which time everybody knows the truth and it is a matter of what they should do about it; two of Jimmy’s guys finally get in too deep and end up in a fateful, inescapable hold up at a corner store, with Franny forced to intervene. As mentioned before, Ray and Jimmy’s showdown diverging into a bare knuckle Irish barmy is insultingly stupid and badly out of touch with the real of the film’s tone and aesthetic. Jimmy’s defeated manner here also clashes with his fire and brimstone defiance in a recent exchange with Franny (one of Farrell’s best scenes, even if his otherwise flawless accent does slip).
By contrast, Franny using his fatherly influence to diffuse a potentially deadly situation and coax the corrupt cops out of certain death and into a likely prison cell is a perfect conclusion to his arc. In terms of score, cinematography and background (a baying mob growing outside the shop), this scene is far more gripping than two main characters punching each other. If the two are to fight, it should feel organic; perhaps Jimmy is willingly blithe and proud to the end, trying to fight off Ray as he slaps the cuffs on. It is made easier by the fact that a quickly sinking Jimmy is already half in the bag after downing one too many whiskeys. We get our punch up this way, but it makes sense to the story and Ray’s victory makes far greater sense, given he is the physically weaker of the two.
The switches between the two climaxes is thus better threaded and far more effective, leading us to the story’s effective finale, where Jimmy finally faces the consequences of his actions and bows out at the hands of a vengeful father. Distraught remorse finally catching up with Jimmy before his death at the hands of a mob should be conveyed by tearful glances and frightened face, not blatant action. Pushing Ray away, dropping his bat and accepting his punishment should be replaced by affected rage and defiance, clearly covering up genuine guilt and fear. The originally envisioned ending, in which Jimmy is seized by the crowd and pulled away from Ray with death implied, should thus be restored.
Ultimately, what this comes down to is that the protagonists should all be tested and should all act as their character dictates. Thus Ray’s crusade should be a huge risk and muddied by uncertainty, Franny opting for justice over loyalty should be in the face of his father’s disapproval, and Jimmy’s decisiveness over the justification of his actions should be rock solid. Jimmy has made his choice and he will stick to it, so the redemption should be Franny’s. Having established the personality, methods and motives of these men, we have to stick them out for better or worse. The key to this is Francis Sr.
The patriarch should have an arc too, a debate over which of his two families and his two sons he values more. Franny’s standing and aptitude makes him the favored son, while Ray’s inconvenient integrity and introversion (not to mention his past) makes him a black sheep. Similarly, Francis Sr. mistakes protecting his officers for looking after his kids. The ending should see Pops realize his error after Franny backs Ray, a turn that previously looked like getting the Tierney kids disowned. By doing the hard thing in taking down his own brother in law, father to his nephew and niece and a fellow officer, Ray almost loses everything but ultimately is rewarded for his righteousness by regaining his courage and the approval of his father. Those two closely linked families are both tested and tried by Ray’s efforts but are cleansed and allow him back in for his merits.
After some work on the dialogue and a couple of changes to the casting, along with these more sweeping narrative alterations, you now have a film that does well on the emotional promises it makes. It is surprising that a film from O’Connor, who did so well with sub-textually similar material in Warrior, would require such surgical work, but the alternative is transplant excision to remove the powerful moments that would otherwise be wasted. Sadly of course, this is all on paper, and a film that could so easily have seen a brief revival in the cop thriller genre (or perhaps sparked a greater one) instead goes down as average, downtrodden on Rotten Tomatoes and forgotten by the masses, even for all its redeeming features. The good, as a fictional King once said, does not wash away the bad. Shame.