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Nothing thin about this blue line

The Baltimore Sun

The bristling New York cop movie Pride and Glory boasts more than A+ street smarts. It overflows with a combustible blend of street sensitivity and testosterone. In his first film since his sensational Olympic hockey movie Miracles, director Gavin O'Connor (who co-wrote the script with Joe Carnahan), has crafted a tale about a bred-to-the-blue policeman that captures the richness and the insularity of police work when it's done as a family business.

Edward Norton is at his veracious best as Ray Tierney, a New York cop pulled into a task force investigating a Washington Heights shoot-out that took down four fellow officers. Noah Emmerich matches him as his brother, Jon Voight does his juiciest, freest acting in years as their father, and Colin Farrell is startlingly good as their brother-in-law.

As Norton's idealistic cop cries "Enough" to the kind of blind loyalty that cloaks corruption, the movie should catch the public mood and draw the audience it deserves (something that other terrific corrupt-cop movie Dark Blue never did). Pride and Glory explodes the boundaries of melodrama. It's genuine drama, except that it's acted out by men who express themselves with fists, billy clubs and guns.

From the beginning, O'Connor links the pull of family and the NYPD. Ray arrives late to a department football game in Brooklyn (his brother is coaching, and his brother-in-law is the team captain) just when a drug dealer is gunning down those four cops in Washington Heights. Ray's brother heads the dead men's precinct; his brother-in-law worked their beats with them; and Ray's best department friend is one of the deceased. So it doesn't take much arm-twisting for his father, a honcho in the department, to enlist Ray in a special unit to find the killer.

It's meant to be a triumphant return to frontline policework for Ray, who transferred out of the narcotics division years before after a controversial case that wounded him physically, emotionally and morally. Yet this case isn't going to be easy, either.

Ray quickly establishes a connection between the killer and some dirty cops. O'Connor signals the audience early that Farrell's cocksure, ruthless Jimmy Egan is among the dirtiest.

O'Connor stays ahead of the audience without cheating us. He doesn't hew exclusively to Ray's point of view, but he conspires with Norton to make us see the action through Ray's eyes. And hear it through his ears. And feel it through his skin. And filter it through his brain, by far his most dangerous organ. Even if his dad is proud of Ray's superior intelligence and deductive skills, they mark his boy as a man apart. (You feel his distance from his clan from the moment he arrives late to the football game.)

A social-political subtext often supplies Norton with the juice he needs to get him going as an actor. Here, without forcing the parallels to Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib, he and O'Connor evoke how navigating a city's lower depths and allowing extortion and other crimes to fester within the police department itself can taint even well-meaning men and result in police brutality and torture.

Still, what gives the film its unruly life is Norton's and O'Connor's brilliance at bringing new vitality to obligatory cop-movie scenes. When Norton is in an alleyway, tracing the bleeding killer's getaway route, he makes you feel as if no other actor ever played a cop catching an unexpected scent. He's on red alert, even when he's cool. With an authoritative twitch, he can make a cell phone ring resound like cathedral chimes. There's real art - police art, as well as acting art - when Ray, who speaks fluent Spanish, adjusts his whole demeanor to the demands of individual interviewees, such as a small boy who can identify the killer or the bad guy's strung-out lover who has witnessed multiple murders.

O'Connor sets each locale down ruthlessly with a tactile flair; you can smell the insecticide in the bodegas. Declan Quinn's roving cinematography demonstrates what, at its best, a freewheeling camera can do: make viewers want to fix on clues or telling details amid the urban carnival, as if they're on the beat themselves. Even a flourish like police-car lights rimming Ray Tierney in red registers as found art.

Pride and Glory doesn't devalue the thin blue line that separates civilized life from animality, but it doesn't give cops a free pass just for leaping boldly on either side of it, like Egan, or for protecting the reputation of the force at all costs, like Voight's grizzled, overemotional patriarch. By now, Voight has become such a supremely confident actor that he can play an aging lion's silliness, as well as his misguided strength, without making a fool of himself.

The title refers to the qualities that draw men and women to the force. But the movie is brimful of observations and insights that are, in many ways, deeper and richer than its stated themes. Egan's brutality wouldn't be so shocking if Farrell weren't so persuasive as a man who delights in his family. In one of my favorite shots, the camera travels up the innocently entangled sleeping bodies of Egan and his wife and kids before cop business comes rapping on the door. In this film, evil does sleep with the good - in the department, in cop families and in the hearts of its antiheroes.

Pride and Glory

(New Line Cinema) Starring Edward Norton, Colin Farrell, Jon Voight. Directed by Gavin O'Connor. Rated R for strong violence, pervasive language and brief drug content. Time 130 minutes.

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