French actor-turned-director Guillaume Canet’s first foray into English-language cinema, Blood Ties (2013) is a self-consciously styled paean to 1970s cinema – namely the New York crime yarn. Though adapted from Bruno and Michel Papet’s novel Les liens du sang, it bears many of the trademarks of co-writer James Gray’s own work as a director; namely fraught sibling relationships and the testing loyalty between family and the law. It’s nothing that hasn’t been seen numerous times before, and despite the injection of a starry line-up of some of the finest actors working today (and Clive Owen), the creative duo fail to bring anything particularly innovative or new to an already crowded table.
Owen plays Chris, a hardened con who is released from an almost decade-long stint in jail and is reunited with younger brother Frank (Billy Crudup), a detective in the NYPD and ailing father Leon (James Caan). Failing to reconnect with the mother of his children Monica (Marion Cotillard) who has taken to turning tricks to survive while he was in the joint, Chris hooks up with younger work colleague Natalie (Mila Kunis) and attempts to put his past behind me. It isn’t long, however, before the allure of his former lifestyle becomes too powerful to fight, and he’s back carving up the streets, much to the frustrating and anger of his brother, who is trying to make a better life for himself with single parent Vanessa (Zoe Saldana), the girlfriend of Scarfo (Bullhead star Matthias Schoenaerts), a criminal he himself put away.
The excitement whipped up during the film’s opening, which features a violent police bust scored to the stomping New York Groove, promises much. Despite a multitude of floral shirts, impressive sideburns and a nicely muted, era-aping colour palette (and what seventies homage would be complete without Caan thrown in for good measure) the resulting film goes on to hit the same old genre machinations. The over-familiar Scorsese-esque period jukebox (The Velvet Underground’s Heroin in a scene depicting the use of heroin…again) only underscores the film’s lack of originality. As the director proved with his last feature, 2010’s Little White Lies, he can work wonders with an ensemble, and while the male performances are solid (Crudup is the shining light) the female cast is lumbered with pretty thankless roles, and even Canet’s real-life partner Cotillard feels very underused here. Blood Ties is undeniably well-made and remains watchable, but save for the occasional flashes of class, the majority of the time it operates on a purely perfunctory level.