James Gray's The Yards (2000) opened in the U.S. to fairly mixed reviews, many politely recommending it and many politely panning it. Nobody got too excited about it either way, and neither did audiences. According to boxofficemojo.com, it grossed less than $1 million on a $24 million budget. But Europe was a different story. European film critics generally are geared more toward artistry and personal expression than they are stories and subject matter, and I often agree with their assessments, but for some reason they really latched onto The Yards. I caught up with the film later, when Miramax released a special edition DVD in 2006, and I found myself agreeing with my American colleagues. It has a kind of nostalgia for the 1970s, with James Caan, Ellen Burstyn and Faye Dunaway in rich supporting roles, and so perhaps it gives the illusion of grit and risk. But the leads Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Wahlberg and Charlize Theron placed it squarely in the present when risk is better in theory than in practice.
Seven years later, Gray has returned with his third film (his first was 1994's Little Odessa), and I've slowly begun to understand Gray's brand of low-key skill. Certainly the premise, about two opposing brothers, one in law enforcement and the other hovering near the underworld, has been around for some time, and could have been told in any early D.W. Griffith or Raoul Walsh silent picture. John Woo made a masterpiece from the idea with his A Better Tomorrow (1986). And Clark Gable and William Powell played out the idea -- as best friends instead of brothers -- in Manhattan Melodrama (1934). But Gray takes the tale, shakes it out and makes it compelling once more.