Writer-director Robert Moresco adds just a few new wrinkles to the undercover-among-the-mob formula in his indie drama 10th & Wolf. The movie takes place in Philadelphia, for one thing, and the undercover agent isn't a cop, but an anti-authoritarian Gulf War veteran (played by James Marsden) who wriggles out of a court-martial by agreeing to help the FBI get the goods on some thugs from his old neighborhood. But Moresco—the Academy Award-winning co-screenwriter of Crash—can't keep the clichés at bay for long. 10th & Wolf opens in the deserts of Kuwait, with oil fires on the horizon, as Marsden delivers portentous narration about how he looked up to his dad until he found out that "my father killed people." Soon, the images take on the sickly color common to moody contemporary action movies, and a bunch of talented actors start popping their eyes and shouting at each other, as though the routine give-and-take of a bunch of crooks were the greatest story ever told.
In addition to Marsden, the cast includes Brad Renfro, doing his angst-ridden-bully bit as Marsden's mobbed-up younger brother, plus a slack-faced Giovanni Ribisi, playing Marsden's short-tempered cousin. (Why did it take so long for filmmakers to turn Ribisi into Joe Pesci?) Moresco adds distracting cameos by Dennis Hopper, Tommy Lee, and a hairy Val Kilmer; on the distaff side, he has Lesley Ann Warren as Marsden's duplicitous aunt, and Piper Perabo as the single mother with whom he falls in love. All these actors do yeoman work, but while their scenes probably looked great in dailies, when cut together, they add up to an overly earnest portrait of misplaced loyalty and the perils of pretense. In the end, the movie is really all about tough guys walking into rooms and shouting, "What is this, a jerk-off convention?", and Marsden going back to his FBI contact Brian Dennehy to say, "I can't do this. I want out." It isn't exactly a waste of time, but anyone who's seen a mob movie or TV show in the past 30 years has pretty much seen 10th & Wolf.