Why do young actors want either to be rock musicians or to play wise guys in movies? Generally they’re terrible at both. Here’s another example–not of an ear-wearying band but of a picture about twenty-something would-be mob chieftains caught up in organized crime. For some reason “10th & Wolf” attracted the talent of James Marsden (so good in “Superman Returns”), Giovanni Ribisi (excellent in “Heaven”) and Brad Renfro (still memorable from “Apt Pupil”)–to the detriment of them all.
The picture is the work of writer-director Robert Moresco, who’s apparently seen “Donnie Brasco,” “Serpico” and all of Martin Scorsese’s Mafia movies entirely too many times (along with scads of others from “Scarface” to “Deuces Wild” and “Knockaround Guys”). In this highly derivative off-shoot, Marsden plays Tommy, a kid who enlists in the Marines, apparently to expiate the shame of his deceased father’s mob roots. But he goes ballistic at the close of the first Gulf War, apparently because of all the horrors he’s seen, and is brought up on charges that could land him in prison for a long while. He’s given an alternative by hard-nosed federal agent Leo Horvath (Brian Dennehy), though: go undercover and help them bring down mobster Luciano Reggio (Francesco Salvi), a Sicilian who’s brutally taken over the territory in the old neighborhood that used to be controlled by mobster Matello (Dennis Hopper), whom Reggio wasted. The inducement? The feds have the goods on Tommy’s cousin Joey DiSimone (Ribisi), who was one of Matello’s guys and is now opposing the Reggio takeover–and who not only was like a brother to Tommy after his father died but is now the boss of Tommy’s real younger brother Vincent (Renfro), a soft, dependent sort who would go down with him.
From here on the picture sandwiches into its plot virtually every trope of the genre you can imagine. There are double and triple-crosses, of course, as well as a romantic subplot involving a widow named Brandy (Piper Perabo), whose husband one of Joey’s henchmen killed, and a family secret involving Joey’s mother Tina (Lesley Ann Warren). There’s the usual round of swaggering bravado, shoot-outs, beatings and sudden murders, with a brutal attempted rape tossed in for good (or bad) measure. There are the pointed scenes designed to show that in their pursuit of the villains, the feds are willing to abandon principle, so that what might have been a black-and-white tale instead is supposed to be one told in shades of grey. These are all bad enough, but what’s one to make of a truly ludicrous dinner scene in which Reggio actually brings in an opera singer dressed in clown costume to regale his guests with an aria from “Pagliacci”? Is this intended to be taken seriously, or is it designed as a campy reflection of something that might have shown up in an old flick about Al Capone?
Unfortunately, Moresco’s lack of subtlety in writing and direction infects the cast, with Ribisi in particular going so far in his tough-guy impersonation that he would be ridiculously over-the-top even on “The Sopranos” (an observation elicited by the fact that the club he runs looks a lot like Bada-Bing). Veteran Dennehy isn’t far behind, chewing the scenery with little restraint. Renfro’s depiction of a squirmy wannabe isn’t much better, and if Marsden appears relatively subdued, it’s only by reference to the overwrought thespian exhibitions with which he’s surrounded. And Hopper seems restrained, frankly, only by comparison to his earlier self.
“10th & Wolf” looks fine physically, boasting slick cinematography and a nice production design, even if the makers can’t quite hide the fact that it was shot in Pittsburgh, though it’s supposed to be set in Philadelphia. But as a story it’s like every Mafia movie you’ve ever seen blended into one cliche-ridden package.