The Yards (2000) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna

The Yards is a very sophisticated true-to-life film which strips all the fairy tale elements out of organized crime. It is based upon a NYC kickback scandal that caused the suicide of a borough president back in the 80's. As it happens, the director of this film had relatives involved in these incidents.

Let me start with a digression. In my business years I had to deal with people who engage in criminal activities, although I was always in legit operations, and usually was kept sheltered from anything overtly criminal. Certain things are not what they seem to be.

Let's say, for example, that an American city has an antiquated statute that keeps a particular business segment from doing business. There are two ways to get rid of the statute. The perfectly legal way involves a massive amount of time and paperwork. The other way involves giving money to the right people to take care of the problem almost overnight. Now if you work for a legitimate Fortune 500 company, you don't go around bribing public officials to introduce or repeal or expedite legislation. That is illegal, and bribes are not tax deductible, so claiming it as a business expense is a second crime. So here is what you do. You go to influential lawyers and explain the problem until one of them says, "I believe we can handle the motions on that. Our legal fee will be $500,000, payable only upon revocation of the law." That is not what he means. What he means is "I know the right guys to bribe". The five hundred grand gets distributed between the approachable men in power and the law firm. About 50 bucks goes for filing the proper legal documents, and a few hundred bucks might go to billable hours. But if you are the legitimate operator, the lawyers never tell you what the money is for. That is their "legal fee". It's OK with you. Outside attorney's fees are legitimate business expenses, therefore tax deductible.

These are simply situations where everyone knows what has to be done, and nobody talks about it. Even the money that changes hands between the law firm and the politicians is earmarked in some legal way like "campaign contributions", and nobody discusses a tit-for-tat. The guy who brings the campaign contribution simply happens to mention that there are some upcoming issues he wants the legislator or the judge to be aware of.

The same rules apply elsewhere. Any health inspector can close any restaurant or convenience store at any time. If they really inspected thoroughly and applied the rules even-handedly and accurately in certain cities, almost every restaurant would be closed today. But there are restaurants open in those cities. How could that be? Gee, take a guess. (Actually, the system varies from city to city. You have to have a local boy who knows the ropes.)

That is real life.

It's the way in which corruption pervades the system. In certain types of businesses, the only way to survive is to understand the unwritten rules and play by them, and hope nobody ever tells you out loud what the money is really for, because then you'd be guilty of something criminal.

This movie is about these types of moral and legal ambiguities.

Marky Mark plays a guy just out of prison, and he goes to work for his Uncle Frank's company, a firm that bids on government contracts to provide services, repairs, and parts for the city transportation system. Such a company must search for the edge on its competitors. The owner of the business must work the angles, or he wouldn't be in the business, because he knows his competitors are working the angles. That is understood.


Charlize Theron is seen topless, in a sex scene with Joaquin Phoenix that is quite far from the camera.

Phoenix is seen naked from behind, through a rear view mirror. (A corrupt official makes him strip to prove he's not wearing a wire)

I was also on the other side. When I was in charge of one type of supplier contracts for a major US company, every supplier wanted to talk to me over dinner. Some suppliers only wanted to pitch their deals in completely legit ways, waiting for me to speak. Some suppliers offered subtle bribes - asking to meet me in Vegas, and wining and dining me beyond my wildest dreams, complete with an envelope in my room filled with a little gambling money, courtesy of "the house". Other suppliers simply asked what it would take to get the contracts, leaving it open for me to decide whether to talk about stuff my company would want or stuff I would want. I managed to keep as clean as one can be in an unclean world, but various conversations led me to understand that my predecessors had not. I know there could have been some big money for my pockets. I stayed clean because I thought I had a great future and didn't want to spoil it. Maybe in different circumstances, if I had thought my career was maxed out, for example, I would have taken the easy road. The point is this. Suppose I had been a flexible guy? Who would have gotten the contracts, those with the best deal for my company, or those with the best deal for me? Now if you were one of those suppliers pitching 100% straight, and you were pitching to a flexible guy, what would be your chance to get a contract over a competitor who provided personal perks?

There are two types of suppliers who cross the legal line. The first group consists of legitimate businessmen who must play some angles to survive. The second type consists of real criminals, who start to escalate their demands from a public figure once they know he is compromised. Their threats have nothing to do with violence. Once they get someone in an important position to accept a bribe, the bad guys don't need to threaten them with guns, just with exposure. (Exposure doesn't usually make for much of a movie, so movie gangsters use violence.)

Anyway, we all know this is true, but we choose to ignore it. When somebody gets caught in the illegal activities, we moralize and pontificate, but we all knew it was going on, and we all looked the other way. We all know it is still going on everywhere every day. Friggin' Mother Theresa probably had to bribe public officials to keep from getting her hospices shut down.

If ol' Uncle Frank wants to succeed in his business, he has to play the angles.

While working for his uncle, Marky gets in some trouble over a violent incident in a railroad yard. Uncle Frank's name must be kept out of the incident at all costs. It's a very tricky situation for Marky and his pseudo-gangster Uncle (Jimmy Caan). In this situation, if Marky tells the truth, everyone goes down. Marky's other choice is to lie, thus protecting his Uncle, but risking a lifetime of jail for himself. Should Marky take the rap to shield the guy who gave him a good job, and is married to his mom's sister, and supports almost everyone in the extended family? On the other hand, what should Uncle Frank do? If this were just another employee, Frank might have had him "taken care of," but this is his own nephew, and a good kid.

That, too, is real life.

That's what the film is about: real gangsters. Because they are real, there are no shoot-outs in deserted Mexican towns, and no intricate tortures, just real people facing real situations that occur every day in their struggle to do the same things we all do - make a living, and protect their friends and families.

Of course, the decision to bump off Wahlberg would have been a lot simpler if Uncle Frank had ever heard any of his albums.

Now that I've made all those digressions, let me get to the point of whether the movie is any good. Yes, in a film school, Cannes-entry kind of way. But James Berardinelli hit upon a very important point in his review - "reality is overrated". Critics and film buffs liked the film. Mainstream viewers stayed away in droves. It is an intelligent, complex film with about zero entertainment value.

The performances are good, and I was impressed with cinematography, which is dark and moody, but clear as a bell.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • The print is good. Widescreen anamorphic, 1.85:1.

  • Full-length commentary, but not much in the way of other features -  one "behind the scenes" featurette

Tuna's comments in yellow: 

The Yards (2000) is about corruption in the New York boroughs regarding the  way transit repair contracts were awarded, and is based on a true story. The film is like real life, and shows what real businessmen and real corrupt politicians and crooks really do. But, as we all know, reality is a crutch for people with no imagination.

The film loses the catsup race, moving slower than a K-Mart checker, and has no real peaks of excitement. It is more like a documentary about a subject that just isn't interesting. In much of the film, they only use half of their widescreen aspect ratio.  I am not sure what to call the genre, but this seems to appeal to some critics, Scoopy, and early IMDB voters, but certainly not theater goers.

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: Three stars. Ebert 3/4, Berardinelli 2/4. Berardinelli pointed out, and justly so, "reality is overrated"

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 6.3.
  • With their dollars ... it bombed el grande. Made for a $20 million budget, and armed with decent reviews, it couldn't even bring in a million at the domestic box.
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, Scoop says, "this film is a C+. Pretty good movie, but I'm not sure exactly how to classify it. Not entertaining."  Tuna says, "I can't give it better than C, despite a talented cast"

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