This is a curious hybrid combining contemporary language and violence with a retro set-up right out of a 1930’s James Cagney/Pat O’Brien movie and pulsating undercover law enforcement action of 1970’s films like Serpico and The French Connection.
The story is simple: two brothers find themselves on opposite sides of the war on drugs. Bobby (Joaquin Phoenix), is a nightclub manager with a gorgeous girlfriend (Eva Mendes as Amada). He loves the nightlife, he loves to feel important and respected, and he loves to feel that he is something of a rule-breaker. He loves to feel far away from his law enforcement relatives and has changed his last name to Green so no one will know he has cops in his family. His brother Joseph Grusinsky (Mark Wahlberg) hates anyone who breaks the law, especially drug dealers. his father Burt (Robert Duvall) wants to be proud of both of his sons.
Bobby and Amada show up at Joseph’s promotion ceremony, high and giggling. Joseph, Burt, and some of the other officers take Bobby upstairs to the church sanctuary to ask him to help them capture a drug dealer named Vadim (electrifying newcomer Alex Veadov), nephew of the club’s owner. The owner and his wife have treated Bobby like a member of the family. Bobby refuses — until catastrophe occurs and he has to think about who really is family and whose side he will be on.
Despite a powerful chase scene and some affecting performances, the movie’s retro slant makes it simplistic and superficial. Instead of commenting on the conventions of the past, it awkwardly tries to pretend that they are still in effect.
Parents should know that this movie has intense and graphic peril and violence, including a lot of gunfire. Many characters are wounded and killed. The plot concerns drug dealers and narcotics officers, and characters use and sell drugs, drink, and smoke. They also use strong language. A strength of the movie is its diverse characters, but there are some racial epithets.
Families who see this movie should talk about what made Bobby and Joseph alike and what made them different.