Tough guy detective Sean Riley (Strong) works a beat in storm-scarred and gang-riddled New Orleans. Trying to deal with a shattered marriage left behind by the death of his son, Riley watches as his partner is mowed down by crack-house thugs. Facing a suspension for the botched raid, Riley is transferred to another case involving the immolation murders of seemingly random victims. Somehow, an old buddy of his (Flannery) is caught up in the mix, and hot on his trail is a psychopathic heavy Raymond Crowe (Mandylor) who is rapidly losing control of both the situation and his cool. To make matters worse, the pressure is on Crowe from his higher-ups (Prochnow and Method Man), cold businessmen eager to cut him from their losses. With so many frayed edges on both sides, violence is inevitable. As is gunfire, car chases and explosions.
Ho-hum, right? Another hyper-active cop movie. Except that “Sinners & Saints” isn’t the product of Hollywood but rather is an outstanding action-thriller from independent writer/director William Kaufman, the low-key maestro behind the amazing 2006 “The Prodigy.” Once again, Kaufman battles against a modest budget to pull off blockbuster-gauge miracles. The gunfights, car flips, squibs and fist-fights are presented in the classic style—all practical, minimal (if any) CGI, with real stuntmen taking the hits and falls.
As those who remember “The Prodigy” know, Kaufman excels in injecting real people into his ballistic ballets. Riley is burning out quickly, but he is no mere stock character. He may be ready-for-action like Martin Riggs in “Lethal Weapon 4,” but he’s insightful and introspective like Martin Riggs in “Lethal Weapon 1.” His working relationships with both his Captain (Berenger) and new partner Ganz (Phillips) can be tense at times, but are never adversarial. And despite Crowe’s over-the-top methods of body-disposal, he is far from an unstoppable killing-machine. In fact, he’s stressed-out as well and close to panicking at times when it’s apparent that the men he works for would rather have him dead than provide any sort of meaningful backup. Flannery’s turn as the twitchy friend-from-the-past whose number is up serves the story well, but his chemistry with Strong makes it believable that the two fellas actually are old friends, instead of having just met during the table read like so many other cop movies.
Because Hollywood wrote the formula for this type of cops-and-robbers movie, there are few ways to make them different. There are always the reversals, the revelations, the show-downs. Where Kaufman excelled in “The Prophecy” is exactly where he excels in “Sinners & Saints.” He knows how to play with convention and expectation. Because he knows that we know where the beats are, it’s almost easy for him to pull the rug out from under us, and he almost always does this with character. Where we expect archetypes, Kaufman’s script (with Jay Moses) gives us people.
“Sinners & Saints” looks as slick and expensive and explode-y as any Michael Mann movie—in fact, it takes several visual cues from “Heat” and “Manhunter”—but delivers more heart and depth from the average summer blockbuster. You may think you know how it’s all going to unfold—and you may be right—but you’ll still find joy in watching how these atypical men play it out.