After transposing an American detective novel to France for his hit directorial debut, “Tell No One,” thesp-helmer-scribe Gullaume Canet inverts the equation for “Blood Ties,” which adapts French director Jacques Maillot’s 2008 crime drama “Les Liens du sang” to the 1970s New York of “The French Connection” and “Serpico” fame. Result is a sluggish, dramatically undernourished saga that somehow manages to exceed the original pic’s running time by 40 minutes without adding anything appreciable to the story or characters. Canet’s name plus a starry ensemble cast (including Mrs. Canet, Marion Cotillard) should ensure reasonably brisk world sales, though the pic’s excessive length and dour tone will limit audience appeal — especially in North America, where “Tell No One” racked up an impressive $6.1 million.
Based on a roman a clef by authors Michel and Bruno Papet, Maillot’s film (also set in the 1970s) starred Canet as a Lyonnais police officer thrust back into the life of his criminal brother (François Cluzet) when the latter is released after a lengthy prison sentence. Scripted by Canet and James Gray (whose 2007 “We Own the Night” also featured siblings on opposite sides of the law), the new pic hews rather closely to the events of the first, until a Grand Central Station climax that significantly alters the fate of one major character.
Opening scenes show Brooklyn cop Franck (Billy Crudup) and sister Marie (Lili Taylor) collecting their newly paroled brother Chris (Clive Owen, looking suitably paunchy and disheveled), free after serving nine years on a murder conviction. It’s a bittersweet reunion, stepped in long-simmering resentments, among them Chris’ beef that Franck never visited him in jail. Still, Chris seems to make a concerted effort to go straight, taking a job at a local garage and trying to patch things up with his drug-addled wife (Cotillard), teenage son and younger daughter. But before long, Chris’ volatile temper gets the better of him at work, while a subsequent attempt starting a legit business — a hot-dog stand in Prospect Park — literally goes up in smoke.
Viewers familiar with Canet primarily from “Tell No One” (his subsequent ensemble dramedy, “Little White Lies,” was a hit in France but didn’t travel as far offshore) may be surprised to find that “Blood Ties” offers little conventional thriller architecture, or action on par with “Tell No One’s” celebrated highway foot chase. Instead, the pic is fundamentally a family melodrama, detailing the various compromising positions in which the characters find themselves until something — or someone — has to give. While Chris begins courting a shy, lonely office girl (Mila Kunis) from the garage, Franck takes up with ex-flame Vanessa (Zoe Saldana), whose vengeful husband (“Rust and Bone” star Matthias Schoenaerts, in one of the pic’s livelier perfs) has just been arrested by Franck on a weapons charge. Meanwhile, Chris’ gradual return to the criminal underworld — beginning with a brazen contract hit —threatens to derail Franck’s rising police career.
Though Maillot’s film suffered from similar overplotting (and even included a couple of additional characters), it nevertheless managed to make all the intrigue more involving, whereas here the tension rarely rises above a low boil. In what feels like a strained effort at seriousness, Canet distends many scenes with long pauses and pregnant glances on either side of the action — upwards of 20 minutes could be cut without losing a single line of dialogue — and has everyone deliver their lines in a breathy whisper, as if Chris and Franck’s ailing paterfamilias (James Caan) weren’t the only one missing a lung. And, where the original film’s Canet and Cluzet were effortless in their brotherly bond, Owen and Crudup don’t seem so much estranged as outright strangers. Even the usually unimpeachable Cotillard is oddly adrift here, struggling with an unidentifiable foreign accent whose origins (eventually revealed as Italian) generate more suspense than pretty much anything else in the movie. The rest of the mixed Yank/Euro cast speak Brooklynese with varying degrees of success.
Most of Canet’s filmmaking energies seem to have gone into affecting a convincing period feel, from the plethora of wide-body sedans in varying shades of rust to the finely cultivated sideburns and mustaches and a double album’s worth of choice soul and rock tunes. Lenser Christophe Offenstein’s suitably grimy, washed-out color palette and production designer Ford Wheeler’s nicely aged sets similarly contribute to an authentic, pre-gentrification vibe.