“Blood Ties” is full of notes borrowed from other gritty crime films about policemen, criminals, families, and their mean streets. First, we have two different brothers who have been driven apart by their respective professions, and then we have an awkward triangle which puts everyone concerned in a difficult situation, and then we get your average fatalistic crime story which reminds its hero again that, yes, he can never get away from where he put himself into.
All these familiar ingredients could be mixed well into a substantial plot even if they were not refreshing, but “Blood Tie” performs its borrowed notes so flatly that it does not generate enough interest or intrigue to pull our attention to its pedestrian plot, and the result is a tedious bore which keeps wasting its potentials from the beginning to the end. The movie stumbles with contrivances as failing to generate any narrative momentum to propel its plot, and its good actors are stuck with bland, thankless roles which look incoherent and inconsistent in half-baked characterization.
The story set in New York during the 1970s, and it begins with a police raid by Frank (Billy Crudup) and other NYPD cops. After that raid which was not very successful, they have a reasonable suspicion that an ex-con named Scarfo (Matthias Schoenaerts) is involved with their case, so they come to Scarfo’s residence, but they do not find any incriminating evidence, though they luckily find something else which will put him in jail for a while.
Right from when he entered Scarfo’s home with his colleagues, Frank knew he got himself into a tricky situation. He broke up with his ex-girlfriend Vanessa (Zoe Saldana) under an unclear circumstance some time ago, and she is currently living with Scarfo as his girlfriend. Vanessa is grateful to Scarfo for his help during her hard time, and he promised to her that he will lead a clean life with her and their little daughter while never getting himself into trouble.
Vanessa thinks Frank gets Scarfo imprisoned because Frank has still has some feelings toward her, and Frank cannot deny that even though his handling of the case is strictly professional. He frequently hangs around Vanessa for his second chance, and, despite her initial anger toward him, Vanessa cannot deny what has remained inside her while becoming more conflicted between Frank and Scarfo.
Meanwhile, Frank has another personal problem to deal with. His criminal brother Chris (Clive Owen) is released from the prison after long years of incarceration, and Frank’s father Leon (James Caan) and Frank’s sister Marie (Lily Talyor) welcome Chris’ release, but Frank is not so comfortable with being with his brother. He does try to help Chris as providing him a place to stay and a job to earn clean money, but Frank’s boss and colleagues are not so pleased to see Frank being around someone on the other side – even though that guy in question is his brother.
And Chris has some grudges against Frank, mainly because Frank has been distant from him while he was in the prison. There is always visible awkwardness between Frank and Chris whenever they share the same space, and then we get a typical family meeting scene where they and other family members eventually clash with each other after a few frictional exchanges.
While his relationship with Frank becomes more strained, Chris eventually returns to his old criminal habits. He attempts a small legitimate business with his old friend Mike (Domenick Lombardozzi), but their small hope of clean life is literally burned down to the ground thanks to a petty political game, and he also feels dissatisfied with his menial job at a local garage. When one of his former associates suggests a ‘job’ to him, he declines at first, but you know he will soon take the job if you are not born too early to watch other crime films preceding this movie.
And you can surely predict that Chris’ another descent into crime will press his brother into a very hard circumstance. There is a sequence involved with a robbery and the following shootout during the latter part of the film, and Frank eventually arrives at the point where he must make a decision on which side his true loyalty is placed on.
But the movie curiously fails to establish an emotional ground we can hold onto, and its visibly weak screenplay is rather surprising considering that it was co-written by James Gray, who is no stranger to gritty crime movies as shown in “We Own the Night” (2007). While frequently hampered by its contrived plot turns, the screenplay feels loose and unfocused when it is required to be tight and intense, and most of its characters are no more than a bunch of plot devices for injecting more problems or conflicts into the story. Like David O. Russell’s “American Hustle” (2013), the movie tries to establish the authentic mood of the 1970s through various songs on the soundtrack, but they merely feel like being tacked onto scenes in many cases, and they only remind us of how they were more effectively used in other films.
It is also very disappointing to watch its good cast members being wasted on the screen. Billy Crudup looks passive and insipid throughout the film, and Clive Owen has not many things to do except playing a brooding tough guy role he can do during his sleep. Mila Kunis, Lily Talyor, Zoe Saldana, and Marion Cotillard try hard, but they had lots of disadvantages from the beginning because of their flat characters, and the same thing can be said about the other actors including James Caan, Noah Emmerich, and Matthias Schoenaerts.
The movie is actually a remake of Jacques Maillot’s 2008 film “Rivals”, in which the director/co-screenplay writer Guillaume Canet incidentally co-starred with François Cluzet as the brothers in that version. I have not watched that movie, but I can say that “Blood Ties” fails in many ways while attempting to emulate other senior crime films, and my disappointment grew minute by minute during my viewing. I later learned that the movie was 17 minutes longer when it was shown at the Cannes Film Festival in last year, but this bad film is already too long.