Appellate Judge James A. Stewart believes the Academy Awards should have a category for "Best Performance by a Major City in the Role of Another City."
"Are you going to go to the cops? When's the last time they helped somebody from 10th and Wolf?"
People in the vicinity of Philadelphia's intersection of 10th and Wolf look out for each other, with a little help from hand grenades and heavy artillery. In this story set just after the Gulf War (Nineties nostalgia, already?), a new crime boss is moving into the neighborhood; if anybody bakes him an apple pie to welcome him, it'll probably have explosives in it.
The story wasn't the draw for me when I was eyeing the possibilities for reviews, though. The movie was filmed in and around Pittsburgh, so I was hoping to see some hometown locations. Movies set in or made in Pittsburgh are odd in a way, since Pittsburgh tends to play other cities (such as Philadelphia), while Toronto plays Pittsburgh in Land of the Dead.
I'll tell you right off that Pittsburghers will love looking at 10th & Wolf, since the filming locations in the Strip District and the South Side are barely disguised. You'll see lots of PATransit buses darting through scenes. The only attempts to actually look like Philadelphia that I noticed were a changed street sign (you need to see 10th and Wolf in 10th & Wolf, right?) and a new sign on the bar in which much of the action takes place. In fact, if you didn't know it was set in Philly, you might think it was set in the Steel City, with a couple of street names changed.
As for the story itself, it's a mob tale based—loosely, I gather—on a case which Joe Pistone, who used the alias Donnie Brasco, worked on as an FBI agent. Pistone himself was played by Johnny Depp in Donnie Brasco and he's moved into the world of crime novels.
Facts of the Case
The movie starts out, appropriately enough for a Philadelphia mob drama, on a long stretch of sand in Kuwait (this scene wasn't filmed in Pittsburgh). As we see Tommy (James Marsden, X-Men) riding across the desert in a Jeep, we hear him waxing nostalgic in voiceover:
"We all grow up looking for somebody to believe in. For me it was my father. He was my hero. The day after my 12th birthday, I found out my father killed people for a living. He was a made member of the Mafia."
Tommy, it turns out, joined the Marines to find something to believe in. Bizarrely, though, this "good Marine" attacks an MP and steals a Jeep to go searching for Saddam himself. This lands him in the brig, where he gets a visit from FBI Agent Charles Horvath (Brian Dennehy, F/X), who wants Tommy to do what he vowed he'd never do—join up with the mob—to entrap new crime boss Luciano Reggio (Francesco Salvi). Horvath uses the violent death of friend Willy and threats of indictments over the heads of cousin Joey (Giovanni Ribisi, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow) and brother Vincent (Brad Renfro, Ghost World) as incentives. Of course, it still might be wiser to stay safe and comfortable in a Marines brig, since Willy was the last informant.
Soon Tommy's welcomed into the family business, where he falls for Brandy (Piper Perabo, The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle), the wife of slain informant Willy and the bartender at Joey's strip club, and tries not to run afoul of the menacing Junior (Dash Mihok, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang). Since the hotheaded Joey blames Reggio for the death of mob mentor Matty (Dennis Hopper, Land of the Dead), he's not likely to cut a deal with the new mob boss on the block. It looks like we've got all the ingredients for a violent ending, so this mob movie is ready to bake.
Robert Moresco, backed by members of the famous Di Laurentiis film family (Suzanne Di Laurentiis was a producer), assembled an impressive cast for his $8,000,000 movie. James Marsden plays Tommy as tough-but-square, making him a likeable moral center in an amoral environment. Giovanni Ribisi and Brad Renfro deliver strong performances, but their characters of Joey, who always seems like he's about to explode, and Vincent, who goes along with the crowd and doesn't seem like he's cut out for the gangster life, are very familiar. Piper Perabo plays Brandy the bartender with a pout that looks like it's frozen on her face, but still manages to imbue her character with enough sympathy to make her final revenge on Willy's killer satisfying.
A few good turns in supporting roles are the movie's strongest assets, particularly Brian Dennehy as the morally challenged FBI agent who might not be any better than the mobsters. He starts out as a typical tough lawman, with shades of gray slipping in gradually. Scenes between Dennehy and Marsden have a thoughtful quality that raises questions about whether the ends justify the means. The commentary points out how those questions about authority are emphasized further, but it's the performances here that hit the theme home. Dash Mihok, who as Junior switches between pragmatism and seething violence, creates an unpredictable element here. Francesco Salvi's way of rubbing things in just a little bit more as Reggio also will be memorable. And that's not even considering an oddball Val Kilmer cameo and good scenes with Lesley Ann Warren and an underused Dennis Hopper.
The script by Bobby Moresco (co-writer of Crash) and Allan Steele (who wrote and appeared in The Syndicate) is familiar but well-done, with a nice final twist that brings the moral gray areas into focus.
The look of the film is indie natural, with the occasional overly bright or overly shadowy scenes that you'd expect from a tight shooting schedule and mostly natural lighting. The movie looks good, but with the sound, I noticed an annoying tendency to turn the music and other noise down a little too much when there's a key piece of dialogue.
The commentary by Writer Bobby Moresco, Actor/Producer Leo Rossi, and Editor Harvey Rosenstock, as with many indie-film dissections, explains which corners were cut and which interiors were sets. The most interesting tidbits here are the story of how Francesco Salvi sought out the role and the background behind Val Kilmer's cameo.
Extras also include deleted scenes, which mostly show how dialogue was jettisoned to make the movie flow better, and a behind-the-scenes featurette that concentrates on one day. Naturally, they chose the day in which they blew some stuff up, so you'll like this one if you're a budding movie pyrotechnical crew member. There's a theatrical trailer for 10th & Wolf and a "trailer gallery" with previews for other upcoming releases; Lost fans will be amused to see Jorge Garcia in a role that's not Hurley, but appears to be a lot like the desert-island dude.
The movie is rated R, so the frequent shots of barely-clad behinds at Joey's club, violence, and overdone profanity shouldn't be any surprise.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While the performances here are worthy of note, particularly by Marsden and Dennehy, the story is all too familiar. If you're not enthused about slices of mob life, lots of shooting and berserk beatings committed by unstable tough guys, and f-bombs with every other word, you'll be about as thrilled with this one as mobster Joey is with an opera-singing clown at a "family" dinner.
The scenes between the reluctant rat and his FBI agent handler set 10th and Wolf apart, but it's still a decent movie when it relies on tried-and-true mob story formula.
Not guilty. I'm wondering how Pittsburgh would do in the role of Toronto or Vancouver. Anyone got a few bogus French sale signs to slap up?
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Academy Award-Winning Writer Bobby Moresco, Actor/Producer Leo Rossi, and Editor Harvey Rosenstock
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