“You’re a disgrace to your heritage,” seethes a drug kingpin’s wife to mobster Joey (Giovanni Ribisi) toward the conclusion of 10th & Wolf, a statement that couldn’t be further from the truth: Just like virtually every aspect of Robert Moresco’s directorial debut, Ribisi’s clichéd crook—a murderous loose cannon with an enormous ego and unswerving loyalty toward his friends and family—is dutifully faithful to his gangster film ancestors. Avoiding the amped-up racial paranoia of his Academy Award-winning Crash script in favor of moldy tough-guy tawk and introspective narration used to spoon-feed character motivation, Moresco’s based-on-real-events saga tracks the 1991 return of disgraced U.S. Marine Tommy (James Marsden) to his Philadelphia hometown after having been blackmailed by Brian Dennehy’s F.B.I. agent to infiltrate his beloved cousin Joey’s illicit operation. The government’s goal is to bust a heroin smuggler with whom Joey is on the verge of partnering (or, potentially, warring), though Tommy’s objective is to save Joey, as well as his younger wannabe thug brother Vincent (Brad Renfro), from the hammer of justice. 10th & Wolf‘s aim, however, is to revisit familiar Mafioso movie themes and plot points, a goal it uncreatively achieves throughout its listless Godfather-meets-Donnie Brasco tale of undercover surveillance, blood allegiances, and wrenching betrayal.
Having watched his father murdered on their front lawn, Tommy vehemently detests mob life, a disgust Moresco’s film equates with the character’s anger at the U.S. armed forces for failing, in the Gulf War, to finish their mission by eliminating Saddam Hussein; in both cases, the cavalier waste of human life for no appreciable purpose turns him against the organizations (Marines, Mafia) that serve as his surrogate families. Unfortunately, rather than plumbing such intriguingly politicized parallels, Moresco instead resorts to undernourished romance involving Tommy and Piper Perabo’s widowed bartender, as well as trite moral equivocating intended to give his banal story a tragic dimension, with Tommy’s crooked pals eventually cast in a laughably sympathetic light (except for Dash Mishok’s psychopath, who uses his prosthetic leg to bludgeon a dying man) and Dennehy’s strong-arming agent depicted as a detestable cretin. However, worse than its hackneyed romanticization of gangsterdom, its visual stolidity, and its cast’s sleepy performances (including Leslie Ann Warren, Dennis Hopper and—I kid you not—Tommy Lee) is the film’s cavalier squandering of its golden opportunity for inventiveness, which comes in the form of Val Kilmer as a shaggy-haired, belligerently drunk strip club regular who gives this otherwise stale crime saga a sweet shot of bizarre seediness.