Modestly budgeted little crime film traces the well-worn path of the ex-con who wants to go straight but who veers off under bad influence -- in this case into the unsexy world of corruption in the commuter-rail industry around New York City: bribery, kickbacks, intimidation, and, when necessary, rougher stuff. Mark Wahlberg is the hapless hero, none too bright but highly sensitive (his ma ain't doin' too good), even if that sensitivity amounts to little more than a speaking voice never raised above a volume suitable for the public library. The cast surrounding him is impressive for a film at any level of budget: Joaquin Phoenix, James Caan, a raven-haired and raccoon-eyed Charlize Theron, Faye Dunaway, Ellen Burstyn, and, in smaller parts, Steve Lawrence (don't laugh), Tony Musante, Victor Argo, Tomas Milian. Paradoxically, in such a small-scale and human-centered film, it is the action scenes that stand out: a mission of railway vandalism that escalates on two separate fronts into murder and mayhem; a good-looking, grappling, tussling, tumbling, scrambling fight between Wahlberg and Phoenix; a breathless late-night visit from a lone hitman, with exemplary use of subjective point-of-view shots. But while these scenes are never excessive and overscaled, the same cannot be said of the human interest. The actors are prone to put on masks of anguish, despair, high tragedy, as if laboring under the impression they were doing Euripides. (Worst offenders: Dunaway, Caan, Theron, Wahlberg. Most genuinely human: Burstyn.) Such an impression would be completely understandable, if not forgivable, in light of the doom-laden mood created by director and co-writer James Gray (Little Odessa). And any crime film that regularly smuggles in excerpts from Holst's The Planets, more specifically from "Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age," can be branded as a bit too sensitive. 2000.

Duncan Shepherd

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