After the well-received Little White Lies and Tell No One, French director Guillaume Canet makes his English language debut with a remake of Les liens du sang (2008), a film he originally starred in. Transplanted to Scorsese and Lumet inspired 70's New York streets, the retitled Blood Ties tells a story of rival brothers on different sides of the law. Fresh out of prison, Chris (Clive Owen) is looking to get his life back on track, go straight, make amends with his ex-girlfriend Monica (Marion Cotillard) and all that good stuff, whilst his clean cut brother Frank (Billy Crudup), usually the beacon of the police force, is playing on dangerous ground while shacking up with Vanessa (Zoe Saldana), the girlfriend of a thug he's just put behind bars (Matthias Schoenaerts). As Chris tries and fails to stay out of trouble the brothers are set on a collision course - but they need each other's help more than ever before. Also, James Caan is in it.
There is plenty wrong with Blood Ties but, propelled by an all-star cast and lovingly observed period design, it's able to get away with far more than it should. The Coupe DeVilles and Chevrolets purr around city streets above steaming manholes, the Isley Brothers spin on a record player and Clive Owen hulks around the underworld in a leather jacket - it's not a bad little world to spend two hours in. But although this familiarity is the film's charm, it's also ultimately its downfall.
Right from the opening credits on a black screen with the sound of the city heard through an open window we are thrown back to Serpico or Popeye Doyle's apartment. Canet has well understood these surface ticks and small details - but has become so wrapped up in them he's forgotten to actually portray any depth in his characters. They all brood and ache like Scorsese characters but the tortured souls are artificial. While the impressive cast all turn in solid work, they are largely wasted and reduced to the most by-the-numbers dialogue imaginable. The female characters in particular are given next to nothing to do, with Marion Cotillard, Mila Kunis and Zoe Saldana seemingly just appearing so their names can adorn the poster. One shining light though is the English language debut of Belgian Matthias Schoenaerts whose intense brooding presence was so perfect in Rust and Bone (2012) and Bullhead (2011). His role here is minor and little more than slickback-gold-chain-bad-dude, but a glimpse of his flawless New York accent is a tantalising hint of far greater things to come.
Storytelling also goes wanting in favour of the slavish homage to Canet's heroes. The fairly linear narrative is treated with a staccato rhythm, and an erratic pace that either crawls or sprints never allows the film to find its centre. There is a catalogue of moments and individually compelling scenes, but without an overall cohesion these just appear as a patchwork pieced together from other sources. Despite these technical flaws Blood Ties still beats with a tangible feeling of the genre and period it has chosen to ape - and plays as decent minor league entertainment. The twists, turns, cinematography and dialogue are all the most expected, but if you love the 70's underworld grit as much as Canet, where's the harm in that. There's no such thing as too many climactic shoot-outs in a packed Grand Central station.