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The Yards

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All-Reviews.com Movie Review: The Yards

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Joaquin Phoenix
Director: James Gray
Rated: R
RunTime: 115 Minutes
Release Date: October 2000
Genres: Drama, Suspense


*Also starring: Charlize Theron, James Caan, Ellen Burstyn, Faye Dunaway, Victor Argo, Chad Aaron, Andrew Davoli, Steve Lawrence



Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

What a fine society we'd have if people were all community minded. Usually, though, each of us acts to benefit not only himself but his immediate family and maybe best friends as well. Only after that do we look after the welfare of the greater society. This comes across as the subtext of James Gray's taut, restrained, suspenseful drama of people acting in a corrupt manner to allow their own cliques to prosper at the expense of the greater society. Filmed in New York City, particularly in the boroughs of Queens and Brooklyn, Gray's movie aptly demonstrates the backstabbing and betrayals that we all know go on in local politics. Thanks to a fine cast of celebrated performers, the script written by the director and Matt Reeves cleverly communicates this pattern of duplicity by pointing out the cynical ways that loyalties change in a moment. Given the right circumstances, your best friend can quickly become your assassin, your oppressed group can shed its airs of martyrdom to demand its own share of unscrupulously derived loot.

As the tale unfolds, we discover that Leo Handler (Mark Wahlberg) is the only good man in an extended company of family, friends, and rivals in business. After unfortunately taking a bum rap for stealing some cars, he serves part of his term and, seeking a gig to please his parole officer, he asks his uncle Frank Olchin (James Caan) for a job in a company that builds and repairs subway cars for the city of New York. Devoted to his sick mother Val (Ellen Burstyn), Leo does not have the patience to take a two-year training program in school, so he hooks up with his best friend, Willie Gutierrez (Joaquin Phoenix), who like Uncle Frank is engaged in shady dealings involving payoffs to cops and politicians. Willie, like Frank, wants only to provide the good things for the family he anticipates having with his gorgeous girl friend Erica (Charlize Theron--here with black hair to give her the appropriate ethnic look), and while he brings his pal Leo into his disreputable arrangement, he will not hesitate to sell the young man out if his own neck is on the line.

James Gray, whose previous work, "Little Odessa," portrays a hitman who is disowned by his adulterous father during a bleak Brooklyn winter, is in his element. Gray is adept at conveying the drama's melancholy atmosphere in the way he partially lights the faces of his characters as they act out their conspiracies in indoor locations and is equally competent at imparting the sensuality of a samba-loving nightclub known as Club Rio, the happy dancers bearing their upraised arms as they swing and sway to the pulsating rhythms of the night.

Part of the picture takes place in an actual subway yard, known to New Yorkers as a place so immense that fun-loving teens are able to patrol the area at night affixing their favorite graffiti to the sides of the cars. The damage is greater in this case, though, as groups of thugs hired by a company eager to procure valuable city contracts go about the business of vandalizing competing companies' work in order to discredit them.

Mark Wahlberg, whose sullen bearing anchors this generally gripping movie, is wonderfully cast--a young man who compared to those around him is almost a saint and who eventually plays Serpico in the mean streets of one of New York's outer boroughs. The friendship between him and his friend played by Phoenix is as palpable as the affection portrayed between Phoenix and Theron. Recall Phoenix's striking role as Marcus Aurelius's backstabbing Commodus in "The Gladiator" and you have an idea of how this fine actor can play the part of betrayer in his sleep. Particularly striking as well is Howard Shore's score, somber music which never needs to be pumped up, as "The Yards" is anything but the typical Hollywood slam-bam gangster melodrama that forever captures the attention of a less discerning audience.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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