Dir: James Gray. US. 2000. 108 mins.

Prod cos: Paul Webster, Industry Entertainment. Co-prods: Matt Reeves, Christopher Goode. Int'l Sales: Miramax International (+1 212 219 4100). Exec prods: Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Jonathan Gordon. Prods: Nick Wechsler, Paul Webster, Kerry Orent. Scr: Gray, Reeves. DoP: Harris Savides. Prod des: Kevin Thompson. Ed: Jeffrey Ford. Music: Edward Shearmur, Howard Shore. Main cast: Mark Wahlberg, Charlize Theron, Joaquin Phoenix, James Caan, Ellen Burstyn, Faye Dunaway.

From the moment Burstyn, at the party to celebrate her son's homecoming from prison, declares that their family has been through some tough times but that now these are all behind them, you know this tale is bound to end badly. A belated follow-up to Gray's 1994 award-winning debut film, Little Odessa, The Yards is a class act, beautifully crafted in all departments. But it labours, like the earlier film, under the weight of a sombre tone and a formulaic narrative that, in the end, doesn't deliver its promised emotional punch.

A strong cast which unites solid veterans like Caan with hip younger names such as Phoenix and Wahlberg will considerably boost the film but critical support and an aggressive marketing push from Miramax will be needed to steer this very traditional family melodrama though speciality outlets. Probable festival interest should be a bonus.

Like Little Odessa, the story is set in New York's relatively uncharted blue collar and underworld backwaters - in this case Queens, where Caan's patriarch runs a business which makes and maintains the city's subway equipment. Released on parole after serving time for car theft, his nephew (Wahlberg) hopes to get back on the rails, but finds himself led astray by his boyhood friend (Phoenix).

Phoenix does Caan's dirty work, sabotaging the trains repaired by rival companies. When one such nocturnal exercise goes wrong, Wahlberg finds himself accused of assault and murder and faced with the prospect of blowing the whistle on his own kin.

The film's main liability is this passive and impassive central character, as both written and performed by Wahlberg. Overshadowed throughout by Phoenix's flashy, charismatic rogue, he never catches fire sufficiently to carry audiences through the story. Visually, the decaying industrial cityscapes and Savides' rich, velvety photography are a constant pleasure.