What’s Al Pacino doing?
Ray Liotta, Katie Holmes, Tracy Morgan, Juliette Binoche and Channing Tatum – a fairly prominent, well-known set of actors, but, honestly, I’m not that surprised that any and even all of them are in yet another bad, practically straight-to-video, movie. But Al Pacino? Why does he sign up for these roles? Honestly, this is the man behind everything from Godfather to Serpico; Scarface to Carlito’s Way – what’s he doing providing little more than an extended cameo in a film called The Son of No One starring Channing Tatum?
In fact, it’s not even Tatum’s name that should have set alarm bells ringing – he’s an actor who I’m actually prepared to give a second chance after the likes of Fighting and G.I. Joe, mainly due to a couple of halfway decent supporting performances (Haywire) and one surprisingly impressive comedic co-lead (21 Jump Street) – it’s almost all in the director. And that’s the bit I don’t get: why does Pacino keep signing up for bad movies with bad directors?
In 2005 he did 88 Minutes, an awful thriller that was so bad that it didn’t even get released until 2007. It was directed by Jon Avnet, who once did Fried Green Tomatoes, but who hasn’t made a decent film in over a decade. Don’t get me wrong, perhaps Pacino thought that the guy still had the necessary directorial skills, and so gave it a shot – but when it went so badly wrong, why-oh-why would he return, a few years later, for 2008’s Righteous Kill? Worse still, why would he bring Robert De Niro with him? To think that the only two movies that these two master actors have co-starred in together are absolutely polar opposite in terms of quality; it’s such a shock to see that they’re capable of such great highs (Heat) and yet also such terrible lows (Righteous Kill).
Now, the writer/director of The Son of No One is one Dito Montiel, who made a semi-decent start to his career by writing and directing the Downey Jr. film A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints (which also co-starred Tatum). Unfortunately, he went on to write/direct the clichéd, utterly redundant Fighting (with Tatum now in the lead) and has cemented his bad streak with writing and directing credits on The Son of No One which, if Fighting compiles all the underdog boxing/street fighting movie clichés, is the exact equivalent with dark cop thrillers – plotting out a by-the-numbers narrative that feels like it’s come from a guy who’s just watched Cop Land and thinks it’s been long enough that people might forget that he’s basically written what amounts to a stripped-down low-budget half-baked vastly-inferior rip-off of Stallone’s gritty ensemble piece.
The story, if you can call it that, involves the cover-up of the decades-old murder of two drug addicts at the hands of a young boy, Jonathan White (Tatum). Pacino’s then-detective hid the murders and the murder weapon, ostensibly to protect the young boy (although one has to wonder whether he would have actually got into that much trouble for these two acts of self-defence), but now Pacino’s the old Police Commissioner on his way out and leaving his kingdom to Ray Liotta’s Police Captain, and Liotta keeps getting anonymous letters sent to the Precinct threatening to expose this 80s cover-up and damage all of their careers by further sullying the name of the department. So who does he assign to the case of tracking down and curtailing this threat? None other than Jonathan White, himself now all grown up and walking the beat.
Maybe, just maybe, somewhere hidden within the dark depths of this gritty, often unpleasant story, there’s a decent idea crying out to be made the central focus of the film. Maybe it’s the housing disputes between the city planners, the authorities, and the impoverished housing project-dwellers – arguably the reason behind the whole dark secret bubbling up in the first place, although little is made of this poignant backdrop after a promising set-up at the start; maybe it’s the tale of two kids who go through a hellish childhood together – only one survives it and becomes a decent cop and a solid family man, whilst the other grows up to be mentally disturbed adult after years of being institutionalised on medication; or maybe it’s the age-old vigilante cop theme, i.e. cops who make decisions outside the law in the name of their own particular brand of street justice. Who knows?
Unfortunately, despite the promise of all these ideas; despite the presence of several once-great cast members – and some still-occasionally-good ones – the end result here is so weak, unresolved, ineffective, incoherent and, ultimately, meaningless, that you can’t help but dismiss the whole sorry affair as being nothing other than an absolute waste of time (something which I seem to remember Al Pacino’s character from Heat was not particularly fond of).
I challenge you to make sense of the ending. I challenge you to explain to me how it works in any way, shape or form: legally, morally, logically or even emotionally. Who is corrupt; who is innocent; who gets away; who gets killed – none of it makes any sense whatsoever. It should be a compliment that it’s almost impossible to guess the twist ending but, the reason why it’s almost impossible is because it doesn’t make any sense!
It is literally as if the production ran out of budget and so they trimmed 5 key scenes and 20 minutes off the runtime and just finished it off in one supposedly climactic conclusion which actually will just leave you feeling frustrated and deeply unsatisfied. (Although, that said, you probably had the feeling that it was all going to turn out pretty poorly at the end considering you’ve just sat through all the mediocre-at-best scenes leading up to it.)
As a writer, Dito Montiel has only gone downhill after a relatively promising start, and has proven twice now to have devolved into little more than a hack-job scriptwriter who can only churn out poorly-traced rehashes of other, familiar, universally better work. Yet as a director he is somehow even worse, making the dingy, high-grain, high-saturation stylisation of the standard ‘gritty’ cop thriller look even more clichéd than it already was. His flashbacks are incoherent, his editing is all over the place, and the closest thing he has to a distinctive mark on his work is a propensity for playing the same line of dialogue repeatedly for effect, from slightly different angles – in a way that only reminded me of Van Damme’s early movies, where you’d see one of his kicks shown three times in succession from different angles. Unfortunately, unlike Van Damme’s triple-spinning-kicks, Montiel’s “style” doesn’t even have any unintentional comedy value.
He also appears to be unable to convey any sense of purpose or drive to any of his cast members. Juliette Binoche (Three Colours: Blue, Dan in Real Life) is the biggest victim of this, which is somewhat ironic when you consider that she fought for the role – even fighting to have the part changed from a male journalist to fit her instead. Unfortunately her character comes across as not only one of the most one-dimensional but also one of the least sympathetic of the whole bunch; poorly developed; cold and ineffective. She deserves better, and she arguably should have known better.
Ray Liotta and Al Pacino are straight-to-video mainstays at the moment; they appear to be quite content to slum it in some of the worst movies that I have seen recently, often playing mere shadows of their former career best characterisations – here Liotta phones-in his trademark angry man routine (this guy’s blood pressure must be through the roof by now) and further ruins any credibility that he might have gained during his brief Narc comeback period. Honestly, you couldn’t imagine that this was the same guy who did Goodfellas and Copland, but, considering some of the trash he’s done recently, it’s no real surprise to see him signed on to another stinker.
Pacino is in the same boat, but I just don’t understand why he agreed to get on it in the first place. He should know better, but clearly doesn’t, and is prepared to make the same mistakes again and again and again. Indeed he really must be desperate for money if his career choices of late have involved movies like this and an Adam Sandler comedy where he plays the love interest to Sandler’s female twin (played by Sandler in drag). I’m not sure Pacino has any lower to go.
All of these actors suffer as a result of the director’s distinct lack of vision – he clearly has not explained to his cast where the hell he is going with this particular story, and so they have no idea what to do with the characters. Liotta just shouts a lot; Binoche is moody and cold; Pacino appears to be remarkably sympathetic in the flashbacks, but then pops up at the end as if he’s been asked to play a second, completely different role.
Indeed it’s the younger cast members that survive the piece with some semblance of dignity intact. Tracy Morgan (Death at a Funeral, Cop Out) does exceptionally well in a straight, non-comic, performance, bringing forth enough unhinged mental issues to convince as the disturbed childhood friend caught up in the conspiracy. And Katie Holmes (Dawson’s Creek, The Gift, Go) really puts her all into the part of the concerned wife and mother of young children who does not know how to process what is going on with her husband.
Even Channing Tatum gives one of his better, more stable and solid performances – arguably his best lead performance to date – and is genuinely quite good in the role of the honest cop, tormented by his dark childhood secrets which are coming bubbling to the surface after decades of silence. It’s just such a shame that he’s been stuck with this script and this direction, because, with a better writer on-board and a better director behind him, he could have really done something noteworthy here, rather than just put in a commendable performance in a film that cannot itself be recommended in any way.
Which is, at the end of the day, the big problem. No matter what glimmers of potential there are in cast or premise, you’re ultimately not going to enjoy watching this movie; you’re not going to be satisfied with the conclusion; and you’re not going to be happy with what happens to any of the characters, or any of the resolutions on offer. You’re going to be disappointed that any of these actors chose to be here – let alone all of them – and would likely wish that the wasted 95 minutes of your life could be returned back to you. And you’ll never get that back, so, trust me, steer clear of this one.
A few reshoots, a more substantial ending and a better editor may have resulted in something halfway watchable but what we have here isn’t even that. I suspect that was the response at the Sundance Film Festival, where this premiered nearly a year and a half ago – and that, since then, fans have been hoping that the filmmakers took notice of the criticisms and did some work to further refine the end product before general release. Unfortunately they didn’t, instead merely waiting until the furore died down and then releasing this quietly, where they hoped nobody would notice. In fact, it would be better if nobody did notice this film. It’s worth avoiding.
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