'The Son of No One': Cop Drama Cops Out
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
A fairly turgid cop drama -- where a young rookie is pulled into the sins of the past, his own and others, as his NYPD higher-ups and mentors and family alternately protect and threaten -- writer-director Dito Montiel's "The Son of No One" feels like someone asked the New York filmmaker to dress like Sidney Lumet for Halloween. Starring Channing Tatum as a new cop who came to the profession late in life for the medical benefits, Montiel's film has plenty of turgid secrets and lies, as well as a sense of the melodramatic (in his youth, Tatum's Jonathan White kills not one but two people who had it coming, but crusty homicide detective Al Pacino lets him walk). What Montiel lacks, though -- and what Lumet's gritty, city stories had plenty of -- is a little bit of humor and life and humanity among the big clashes and huge speeches, the grim-lipped facade of the film broken up more than occasionally by a knowing smile or a cynical wink.
The film begins in '80s, in the grim projects of Queens, and in the near-present (2002, with 9/11 post-mortems on the cable news) we're still there: Tatum's White has been transferred to Queens from Long Island, a two-hour commute. A local reporter (Juliette Binoche) is publishing anonymous notes asking why the cops covered up two murders in the Queensboro projects so long ago. White's boss Capt. Mathers (Ray Liotta) tasks White and his partner Prudenti (James Ransome) to shut the hubbub down. White, too close to the case, has to try to protect himself -- and the only other person who knows about the murders, his childhood friend Vinny (played by Tracy Morgan).
Did I mention that Vinny is now mentally ill? Did I mention that Jonathan has a struggling marriage to Katie Holmes and an ill daughter? That the cop who covered up Jonathan's transgressions became the chief of police, stepping down only so Mathers could take his place? Montiel can deliver simpler stories -- his underground beat-'em-up throwaway "Fighting" was a lot of fun, especially when Tatum and Terrence Howard seemed to be unconsciously riffing on "Midnight Cowboy" -- but "The Son of No One" is so heavy and depressing it just becomes a slog. Will Tatum and his moustache negotiate the cloudy waters of his home, the past, the NYPD?
If only Montiel gave us a reason to care. But Jonathan remains a cipher, with Tatum's occasionally blank infuriating passivity masquerading as fraught emotional tension, and the shouting of Pacino and Liotta and Holmes to drive him through the plot. "The Son of No One" fails as a whodunit -- Montiel tips his hand way early on the conspiracy -- and at the same time, the elements of drama clutter up the frame so thoroughly that you'd think Montiel was sprinkling toppings on a sundae, not constructing a narrative. By the finale, where Montiel litters a rooftop with bodies, it feels less like the end of "Hamlet" and more like a relief that there can't possibly be any more film.
It would be churlish to dismiss all of "The Son of No One." The film's look, shot by cinematographer Benoit Delhomme of "The Proposition" and the bad but beautiful "Chatroom" is gorgeous and alive, with plenty of sodium-vapor streetlight-glow noir glamour and the vulgar vitality of New York at night. In terms of the performances, Ransome of "The Wire" has a wicked and weird energy the film could have used a lot more of as Tatum's partner; in a perfect world, he, not Tatum, would have played the lead. Tatum has some good scenes but can't quite come up to the level of the plot's guilt and struggle. But Liotta shouts and sleepwalks, Morgan mumbles and stumbles like a self-contained "30 Rock" joke about Oscar-bait performances and Pacino breezes in growling and murmuring before sliding out of the film.
I can't say if the fix for Montiel's career needs him to start finding other scripts to direct, or to write scripts for other directors, but "The Son of No One" doesn't evoke the great, gritty NYC film of the '70s; all it really evokes is the classic observation that success has a hundred parents, while the orphan failure is the son of no one, too.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com,
Netflix.com, AMCtv.com, IFC.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He was
also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now
lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.