By Drew Taylor | The Playlist November 3, 2011 at 9:30AM
In the relatively ridiculous new procedural/mystery "Son of No One," Channing Tatum, as a mustachioed police officer married to Katie Holmes (and looking after an epileptic daughter), is sent taunting letters and anonymous text messages alluding to a violent incident from his past. (The movie is set way back in 2002 which is why he doesn't receive cryptic emails too. Because no one used email in 2002 apparently). You can tell how terribly we're supposed to take the threats because of all the shaky shots of Tatum flipping open his ancient cell phone, the scenes shot in sickly shades of blue and green. Except that instead of coming across as suspenseful or menacing, it's just silly and laughable, like something out of a teen slasher movie or ABC Family series, lacking anything approximating weight or gravitas.
These moments are evocative of "Son of No One" (named after a folky witticism bestowed by Juliette Binoche's small time newspaper reporter) as a whole – the film seems to be going for the epic crime novel sprawl of James Ellroy or Dennis Lehane, using two parallel timelines and attempted social commentary (about the climate in New York following 9/11). But the whole effort is so clumsy and lackluster -- especially thanks to some clunky editing -- that it's hard to be invested at all. Try as they might, it's a mystery that's easily explained, a drama devoid of tension, and a procedural where no crimes are actually investigated.
Before the title sequence has even finished unfurling, we're flung back to 1986, where a gangbanger is threatening a young boy called Milk (Jake Cherry) by his Queens housing project neighbors presumably for his porcelain skin and not his affinity for calcium. This moment is set up well, with the boy huddled in the corner of a basement apartment, a snub-nosed pistol quivering in his hand. When the junkie barges in the gun goes off; the man is dead and the child is shaking. We then jarringly jump back to the present, the first example of the film’s inelegant approach to film editing, where the kid, now the aforementioned mustachioed Officer Jonathan White (Tatum) is working as a beat cop in his old neighborhood. He’s startled by front-page reports in the local paper rag that quote an anonymous resident that claims the police covered up a pair of murders in a Queens housing project in 1986. While this initially adds a spark of suspense, since we just saw the first murder and are left to wonder who the second person is, this, like everything else in the movie, fizzles soon after.
The housing project where the murders occurred -- a large, interconnected byzantine structure that White’s daughter refers to as a “huge castle” -- has come under scrutiny after forced police evacuations by Captain Mathers (Ray Liotta), White's direct superior, who has a questionable political agenda. The people who live in the projects claim that Mathers is seizing on the newfound power and status of the NYPD following the September 11th terrorist attacks and suggest that there's a backdoor land deal being sewn up for the waterfront property the projects occupy. This is supposed to give “Son of No One” the air of a grander political conspiracy, something along the lines of “Chinatown,” but it just muddies an already convoluted (but preciously thin) narrative.
You can tell that Mathers knows something because of the every rather-obvious sideways looks he gives White for all-too-long (the camera lingers on the glance, too, adding to its importance), but he assigns White to investigate the murder and cover-up allegations. Except that the most police work White does is go down and talk to the journalist (Binoche) who has been printing the anonymous claims, making vaguely threatening remarks while listening to her spout expository dialogue that ends up not meaning all that much to the case.
Interspersed, with the "investigation" (even though there's not much actual detective work being done), are large chunks of flashback, involving Milk and the second, even more ludicrous murder that he also committed in 1986, although murder might not even be the right word since he accidentally pushed a hood down a stairwell in self-defense (The hood never got up.) One of the themes to the movie is that lying about something makes it infinitely worse, but the bigger message is: if nobody lied about anything we wouldn’t have much of a movie.
The flashback/flash-forward dynamic also serves to illuminate the complicated relationship Milk had with his neighbor and friend Vinnie, who was also a witness to the crimes and helped Milk figure out what to do. When Officer White goes to visit Vinnie in 2002, he's still at the Queens project, still living with his mother, but this time he's played by a stubbly Tracy Morgan whose mere presence makes you giggle (you can picture Morgan's alter ego Tracy Jordan picking this role because it increases his chance at achieving an EGOT). In an incredibly dark back story, Vinnie was molested as a child and is possibly a homosexual, and after the murders was sent away to a mental institution. In 2002 he’s all mumbles – a morally conflicted, mentally unhinged accessory that becomes a target of the larger conspiracy when he’s suspected of writing the cryptic notes. Vinnie’s predicament suggests what would happen to White if he had stayed in the projects, although his tale of woe is so hackneyed and lazy you feel like, if the character was female, she would have ended up a stripper.
Tatum, perhaps in an attempt to temper the over-acting by almost every other actor in the movie (Al Pacino has a small role as a corrupt detective who investigated the 1986 murders, who now has larger political connections), seems muted and or barely conscious, which is about how you feel thirty minutes into the movie. By that point we've seen both of the 1986 murders and have identified the villain in the 2002 section because the actor's barbed-wire voice is so easy to spot (how can Katie Holmes not know who that is?) When the villain makes his reveal 60 minutes later, following a jump-cut-heavy car crash and much hurrying about, it's met with little more than a yawn.
Writer/director Dito Montiel, adapting his own crime novel of the same name, clearly has ambition but not a lot of talent is on display in this effort. For all its jam-packed plotting it feels adrift and rudderless, lost in a mess of clichés and convoluted editing. There are a lot of threads but the story lacks scope; there is never a sense of atmosphere or palpable amount of dread. Tatum receives threatening notes, people are getting killed and threatened for opaque reasons, the two plot lines are never reconciled properly, and in the end we just can't be bothered to care. It’s suspense without soul. "Son of No One" will please no one. [D]