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Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Mark Wahlberg, Joaquin Phoenix, Charlize Theron, Faye Dunaway, James Caan
Director: James Gray
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Surround
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Miramax
Features: See Review
Length: 115 Minutes
Release Date: April 17, 2001

Film ***1/2

There are few movie formulas that I never get tired of, one of which is the urban crime genre. These films consists of characters who live in a world of crime, or are trying to go straight and end back up in business, etc. Such a film is The Yards, which could easily be considered a combination of The Godfather and Mean Streets, two films that pioneered this genre almost simultaneously in the early 70s. Such other films of this nature include Carlito’s Way, Scarface, and director Ted Demme’s overlooked gem Monument Ave., which was more or less a retelling of Mean Streets only set in Boston.  This film follows the formula faithfully thanks to very superb cast. This isn’t a happy film. Many of the characters are either filled with regret over the life they’ve lead, or are still very much involved in corrupt work that they don’t even realize it. To sum it up, The Yards is very much a tale of urban tragedy.

Set in New York City, the film is an account of a powerful business organization that is secretly harboring crooked affairs, involving mostly that of racketeering. The director of the film, James Gray, based a lot of the story on events that occurred in his life. Gray’s father was involved in a stunning racketeering scandal in 1986, which resulted in the suicide of Donald Manes, who was the borough president of Queens. Manes took his own life when it was known that he had taken payoffs. Therefore, Gray’s film is without a doubt a very personal piece. It begins with its central character, Leo Handler, played with a somber brilliance by Mark Wahlberg. Leo is returning home from a four-year sentence for which he took the rap for his friends for an auto-theft charge. Once at home, he is instantly greeted with a surprise welcome home party, put together by his best friend Willie (Joaquin Phoenix), who also happens to be in love with Leo’s cousin, Erica (Charlize Theron), who is very close to Leo. All Leo wants is to work an honest job, so that he can take care of his ill mother, Val (Ellen Burstyn). Val’s sister’s husband is Frank (James Caan), who is a successful businessman and a terrific provider for the family.

Leo looks to Frank for a possible job as a machinist, which will require an apprenticeship. Leo needs some quick cash, and looks to Willie for help. Willie leads a crew that works as muscle for Frank in the yards, which are the city’s train tracks where frequent payoffs and kickbacks take place. Willie is eager to bring Leo in on his team, and his first night working with them. This simple business deal goes terribly wrong, resulting in the murder of a yardmaster, and Leo assaulting a cop, but defending himself at the same time. The cop later fingers Leo, since it was the only person he saw at the time, as the suspected killer of the yardmaster, though he knows, as well as us, that he did no such act. Betrayed by those whom he trusted to get a clean start from, Leo is now on the run, but he intends to clear his name, as well as expose the corruption within his family in a very satisfying conclusion.

This cast is simply a knockout. Wahlberg as I mentioned earlier, maintains a level of sorrow and sympathy in his character, even though he was willing to participate in what he knew was a criminal act. Leo maybe flawed, but by the end, we root for him to win and to gain his freedom back. Joaquin Phoenix, coming off his brilliant villainous presence in Gladiator, delivers once again as Willie, who’s perhaps the most complex character in the film. He has good intentions, but winds up going too far in trying to make the wrong things right. Finally, there’s the great James Caan, firing up another winning performance as Uncle Frank, the leader of the ring, who’s also quite a complex character because he is very much working on both sides of the law. He’s only corrupt because from his point of view, those who do not break the law don’t remain in his line of business for long, which is the centered of the complicated lifestyle plaguing this family.

A storyline such as the one in The Yards might not be a totally fresh one, but that’s not to say that the finished movie is a riveting piece of quality filmmaking. Director James Gray really deserves a lot of credit for having the courage to bringing this personal chapter in his family’s life to the screen. This tragedy is perfectly realized through the intense performances from the cast, and Gray’s top-notch directing.

Video ****

Miramax delivers with perhaps its most impressive transfer in quite sometime. The video quality on The Yards is consistently sharp, very clear, and deprived of a single inch of grain. This anamorphic presentation also is vibrant in its colors, and being that most of the scenes take place at night, the picture is still a hundred percent flawless and terrifically seen in true DVD perfection.

Audio ***

A very acceptable use of Dolby Digital audio. The movie is mostly a quiet, moody kind, with no more than dialogue to serve for sound, but such distinct sounds as running subways and various other sounds are picked up very well. The sound quality is given a plus in that regard.

Features ***

Miramax is usually a hit or miss studio regarding the extras department. Most of the time, their releases won’t contain a single feature at all except the film itself, but every so often, such as the recent release of Bounce, they will include everything but the kitchen sink. For The Yards, Miramax gives a respectable amount of effort, including an audio commentary by director James Gray, a behind the scenes documentary, a series of original conceptual art, and trailers for this film, as well as other Miramax releases, including The Cider House Rules, Cop Land, Immortality, Jerry and Tom, Reindeer Games, and the recent remake of Hamlet with Ethan Hawke.


The Yards is a perfect homage to the early works of Scorsese and Coppola, with a personal touch on the side. Urban dramas almost always deliver on a powerhouse level, and if it’s that which you are seeking for, The Yards is right up your alley.