April 04, 2014 by Josh Weiss
“Blood Ties” is a faint echo of a bygone era of filmmaking that defined an entire decade. That decade, of course, was the 1970s, an era of groovy proportions that saw the birth of movies that were gritty, realistic and filmed onsite.
Written by Guillaume Canet and James Gray (“The Immigrant”), the movie is an English remake of Jacques Maillot’s 2008 French film “Les liens du sang.” Filmed in 2012 and screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 2013, it received a limited release March 21.
Directed by Canet, the Brooklyn-set crime drama “Blood Ties” conjures up nostalgic memories of iconic ‘70s crime flicks like “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Serpico,” “Mean Streets,” “Taxi Driver” and “The French Connection.” Loving nods to Lumet, Scorsese and Friedkin abound over the course of the two-hour running time, but somehow the entire product falls flat due to a story that lacks the spark and attitude of the classics that provided such fun excursions into worlds full of sleaze, crime and corruption.
The film starts off strong with a Scorsese-inspired sequence where a beer-gutted Brooklyn slime ball recounts a racist joke to his buddies in 1974 at a table littered with alcohol, cigarettes and firearms, while Ace Frehley’s rendition of “New York Groove” plays in the background (never mind that this version wasn’t recorded until 1978). Suddenly, the cops bust in, arresting everyone in the room. Sadly, this is only a glimmer of the movie “Blood Ties” could have been. It then transitions to the story of two brothers: Frank and Chris (Billy Crudup and Clive Owen, respectively), one a cop and one a criminal recently released from jail.
The plot focuses on friction between them while they struggle with difficult transitions in their own lives. Crudup (“Watchmen”) was probably my favorite character as a conflicted cop with a glorious ‘70s porn ‘stache. Owen (“Children of Men”) came in a close second as a man who cannot escape his own dark side.
While the sibling-family dynamic is an interesting premise for these vastly different personas, the movie never really gains any real momentum nor does it allow for its two extremely talented leading men to shine like Pacino, Hackman, De Niro and Keitel did in their heyday. In other words, they do not completely become their characters to the point that the subject matter, while fictional, becomes real in the viewer’s eyes.
What mostly contributed to this shortcoming was an absence of locales that really portrayed the ‘70s vibe of a filthy, crime-ridden New York City. Sure, we see whore houses and sketchy night clubs, but I yearned for graffiti-filled subways and tenement housing in disrepair that never fully materialize.
Nevertheless, there were some enthralling scenes like a bloody shootout in the street after an armored car heist and a tense chase though Grand Central Station. One endearing flashback includes the brothers as children breaking into a house, a moment that comes into poetic effect near the end of the movie.
Despite its lackluster plot execution, the movie has enough ‘70s panache to get by; there were plenty of clothing, hairstyles, facial hair, appliances, cars, musical choices (two of which were used in “Goodfellas”) and violence that brought the decade and genre to flickering life. The supporting cast isn’t half bad either, but their presence is barely noticed. Marion Cotillard (Canet’s actual wife), Mila Kunis, Zoe Saldana, Noah Emmerich, Lili Taylor and “Godfather” alum James Caan all fall into the roles of loved ones and colleagues who vary in their mastery of the iconic New York accent which, sadly, takes away from the overall illusion of the tough-as-nails “I’m walkin here!” Brooklynites.
All in all, “Blood Ties” shares some DNA with its Oscar-nominated cousin “American Hustle,” which is far superior in every way from humor to drama. I’d say that it’s more similar to last year’s “The Iceman,” which was also directed by a foreigner and set around the same time period, but left me with an empty, unfulfilled feeling at the end.
In the end, its aspirations to join the crime films and cop dramas (a la Starsky & Hutch) of the 1970s are never fully realized. Perhaps such dreams can never be achieved today since the era of cynicism caused by Vietnam and Watergate is a unique relic of the past. You can recreate the age of bell bottoms and disco all you want, but you’ll never recapture the true essence and utter realism: the real chutzpah of the time. All we’re left with is a cheap carbon copy that can never live up to the original. When it comes to these types of period pieces, the vinyl is spinning, but nobody’s home.