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If McCanick was a better movie, it could have been a great showcase for underused character actor David Morse in the title role. Unfortunately, this initially rote and ultimately ridiculous cop-on-the-edge drama suffers from too many creative missteps. It’s a star vehicle with no gas in the tank, and Morse doesn’t even get to give the best or most interesting performance in the film.

Instead, any attention McCanick receives should deservedly fall on the late Cory Monteith, star of Fox’s once mighty musical comedy Glee, who died of a drug overdose a little less than two months before this movie premiered at last year’s Toronto Film Festival. Monteith’s against-type performance as a nervous young street hustler with a mysterious connection to urban narcotics detective Eugene McCanick (Morse) turns out to be the only reason to even bother with this film. Not just because it contains one of the only substantial performances Monteith had the chance to deliver, but because he pretty much nails the role.

Sadly, even Monteith’s accomplishment is compromised by the woefully thin nature of the material. McCanick is so slavishly made in the mold of hard-boiled ’70s thrillers like The French Connection (and, more pointedly, all those French Connection rip-offs) that the film never finds its own identity. It doesn’t help that as a character McCanick is kept at arm’s length from the audience for most of the running time. He’s hiding a big secret, and we’re meant to be on the edge of our seats waiting to find out. But it’s clear very early on that whenever the truth is revealed, it’s not going to justify the narrative contortions writer Daniel Noah and director Josh C. Waller go through to withhold it. What’s not so easy to predict, at least initially, is just how absurd and borderline-offensive that reveal turns out to be.

The action in McCanick unfolds over two time frames. In flashbacks, we see the slow development of a bond between McCanick (clean-shaven, to help keep the shifting timelines straight) and street kid Simon Weeks (Monteith), who prostitutes himself with men for easy money. In the present day, a more beardy McCanick learns that Weeks has been released from prison and becomes obsessed with tracking him down. It’s an obsession that not only forces McCanick to confront the dark side of his job but the dark side of his very soul. And oh yeah, it happens to be McCanick’s birthday—because that’s the kind of thuddingly on-the-nose movie this is.

Clues pop up here and there, including a subplot involving McCanick’s seemingly strained relationship with both his son and his father. Meanwhile, a handful of supporting actors float in and out of the action—Ciaran Hinds as a stereotypically gruff police captain, Mike Vogel as McCanick’s fresh-faced new partner in the present day, and Rachel Nichols as Vogel’s pregnant wife—in roles that go nowhere. Eventually, after a series of increasingly tedious chase scenes and half-baked opportunities for Morse to emote, it becomes obvious where the story is heading in a “Please don’t go there! Oh sweet Jesus, they’re going there!” sort of way.

While McCanick is a slow, painful trainwreck of a movie, it’s never a particularly riveting one. And yet it does have a powerful emotional appeal stemming from an all-too-real tragedy completely eclipsing the bogus drama on screen. Watching Monteith’s performance we see a promising young actor with a bright future ahead of him—he’s tough and vulnerable in all the right ways, possibly bringing some of his own troubled history to the part—and then we despair that he never had the chance to fulfill that potential.

Director: Josh C. Waller
Writer: Daniel Noah
Starring: David Morse, Cory Monteith, Mike Vogel, Ciaran Hinds, Rachel Nichols, Tracie Thoms, Trevor Morgan, Aaron Yoo
Release Date: Mar. 21, 2014