28 May 2006 | bob the moo
Interesting drama but provides no moral discussion or ethical complexity, never questioning the right or wrongs of the actions
As boys growing up in Hell's kitchen Tommy, John, Lorenzo and Michael, were raised in a harsh world despite the moral guidance of the streetwise Father Bobby. Carefree but always in trouble, one prank goes too far and sees a passer-by killed and the boys sent away for 18 months to a young offenders home. Once there they are subjected to cruel and persistent sexual abuse and beatings from the guards, led by Sean Noakes. Years go by and the friends drift apart with Tommy and John becoming gangsters. When the pair spot Noakes in a bar they kill him and walk out, but are picked up later by the police and charged with murder. With revenge on their minds, DA Michael takes the case with the aim of making getting his friends off while also exposing Noakes for who he was; meanwhile Lorenzo sets out to help him with the set-up, while also taking revenge on the rest of the guards.
Sold on the back of the heavy star cast, I went to see this film at time of release and must admit that I wasn't that impressed by it that much. Rewatching it recently I had no reason to change my mind with a film that lives on the surface and, although providing some powerful moments to get the audience on its side, has much a simplistic moral outlook that it significantly damages the telling of the story. The use of narration makes the film drag and this is particularly evident in the first stage where the boys are free. The second stage is more interesting and disturbing as it documents the abuse suffered by the boys although in my opinion is far too safe and sanitised with the cop-out that the memories are buried too deep in our narrator's mind to recall clearly. The final third brings matters to a close and is easily the most engaging as many viewers will find the flow of the story enough to hold their interest.
However for me what I couldn't shake off was the lack of questioning in the film; other than a thoughtful Father Bobby silently wrestling with his conscience (in just one scene!) the film never even hints that what the men might be doing is morally wrong. Now it may well be that the circumstances means that they were fully justified but the fact that the film never even broaches the subject and just expects us to get behind the cold revenge of Michael et al was a problem for me. Wouldn't the moral complexity of their actions be worth looking at, even if the outcome was the same wouldn't it have been more interesting if the audience were being pushed to ask questions of themselves? Very likely the answer is yes, but with Levinson driving we are not to know; for him this is a straight drama with right defeating wrong in a manner that makes for a nice courtroom drama.
The simplicity of the writing and delivery leaves the cast with very little to do in the main group of roles. Patric is flat and dull qualities that could easily describe his narration which is delivered to the general detriment of the film. Pitt is equally as poor, with little to get his teeth into. Eldard and Crudup just seem to enjoy their minor roles alongside such a starry ensemble. With such weak turns from the main players, Bacon easily dominates the film with a monstrous character that he makes larger that life. Not comparable to his much better turn as a child abuser in a much different film recently, but he still dominates the middle section of the film. De Niro sleep walks a character that is so simplistic that it looks like Father Bobby had been developed using Microsoft Paint; he is a welcome presence but adds little. Hoffman is OK but again is just a nice addition to the cast. Minnie Driver is present for some reason I didn't get but the only performance that gets close to being interesting is that of an older Kinney; despite everything else he gets the closest to producing genuine interest in me (sadly the film has no interest beyond him doing this as part of moving the story forward).
Overall then a star-heavy film that wears it's worthy credentials on its sleeve and refuses any debate or examination in favour of a straight drama. The cast find themselves with little to do with such a simplistic approach from Levinson and nobody can lift the material even if some of them stick in the mind much longer than others. I'm sure that the story has enough to engage the casual viewer but those looking for depth or shades of grey in the morally complex tale will be found wanting to Levinson there is none of that here just wrongs that can be righted by any means necessary. As a result though, it is a lesser film and one that made little impression on me.