Joaquin Phoenix is the ambitious night club owner who befriends all sorts of characters, some shady. His brother, Mark Wahlberg, is a principled captain in the NYPD, and their father, Robert Duval, is an even higher echelon type of cop -- Deputy Commissioner or Chief Executive Assistant Deputy of Commissioners and Non-Commissioners, or something. His beribboned uniform indicates that if he were in the Army he'd be a brigadier general, and in the Navy, a commodore except that the Navy no longer has such a rank. Naturally, Pop is prouder of his son the police officer, coming as he does from the kind of family that believes the fetus isn't viable until it graduates from the police academy.
Brother is pitted against brother but not for long. The heavies are all Russians. When a big time drug dealer, a really slimy type that wears his hair in an exotic do and never blinks, played by the Ukranian Alex Veadov, approaches Phoenix with an offer to sample his product and then spread the word about its quality among his night club patrons, Phoenix spills the beans at once to the cops. Phoenix is drafted as a conditional member of the NYPD and wears a wire to a meeting with Veadov. His true allegiance is uncovered by the heavily armed Russians and a shoot out follows.
There are other shoot outs, betrayals, and romantic squabbles in which Phoenix's girl friend objects to his becoming a police officer for the same reason that every other cop's girl friend in every other cop or military movie has objected to her man's job. The lines usually come out something like, "How do you think I feel, waiting for you every night, wondering if you're alive or lying dead in some alley (or battlefield)?" When John Wayne played a military man he constantly had these conflicts with his women and he always won, as Phoenix does here.
There have been lots of cop movies since American cities were turned upside down in the late 1960s and "Dirty Harry" incorporated all our fears of urban violence and serial killers. Most were shackled to action movie conventions. A bop on the head rendered a character unconscious for just as long as the script required. A sock on the jaw achieved the same effect. Not here, though. The violence is brutal but believable and done, if it can be said, with taste by writer/director James Gray.
Take the requisite car chase for example. "Bullitt" provided the holotype -- cars screeching at high speed around corners, shots exchanged, one car apparently trying to bump the other off the road, the shrieking and scattering of pedestrians and all that. Not here. The car chase is filmed with some originality. It takes place mostly on a single highway in New York City in a blinding rain. The point of view is limited almost exclusively to Phoenix, the driver of a car being peppered with slugs from the Russian mobsters. Phoenix is not angry. He's screaming because he's scared to death and because the rain is so heavy he can barely make out what's going on around him, and that's not to mention the dead guy in the suicide seat. The chase scene breaks most of the usual narrative conventions.
I'm not going to give Gray too many bonus points because he lapses into the cliché of the wobbling, hand-held camera during the final shoot out. I suppose it's designed to add a touch of authenticity but all it does is confuse and distract a viewer, interfering with the suspension of our disbelief. A camera that shakes crazily only reminds us that we're watching a movie.
But I have to say that in general this is a notch above the usual cop/action movie. There have been some neatly structured films in the genre -- "Serpico" and "Prince of the City", for instance. James Gray's movie is among the few that reflect the kind of thought and planning that requires skill and even artistry. Nice job.