If William Kaufman filmed “Sinners and Saints,” his neo-noir, hardboiled cop drama, on a shoestring budget and a prayer, then the proficiency with which he films the action says otherwise. Kaufman makes good use of New Orleans’ seedy underbelly, and he throws in more than enough beatings and gunfights to satisfy an audience for whom overkill doesn’t exist.
Johnny Strong stars as Detective Sean Riley, whose marriage falls apart when his son dies of leukemia. With his patience running thin, Riley risks losing his badge after he leads a raid in which he shoots a wounded suspect to death; however, his Captain (Tom Berenger) sends him with Detective Will Ganz (Kevin Phillips) to track down whoever is responsible for murdering dozens of two-bit hoodlums. As it turns out, the trail leads to a drug kingpin named Rhykin (Jürgen Prochnow) and the group of rogue, covert operatives who’ve taken to literally burning the competition at his behest. The operatives set their sights on Colin (Sean Patrick Flanery), Riley’s war buddy who’s trying to stop them before they turn New Orleans into their personal stomping ground.
Riley and Ganz fight Rhykin’s lackeys in a series of high-pitched gun battles that Kaufman and his crew choreograph with an attention to detail that even big-budget movies like The Expendables tend to omit. The two detectives aim, reload, use hand signals to guide each other in the middle of a firefight, and spring back and forth from cover to blast their way through the Big Easy’s most dangerous corridors and streets. Take, for instance, how Riley blinds his opponents with a concussion grenade before he charges into the room and riddles them with more holes than a cheese grater. Mark Rutledge captures the chaos with the steady hand that the cinematographers of Battle: Los Angeles and Cloverfield seem to lack, and Kaufman shoots the sequences long enough so that the audience can clearly see who’s shooting whom. Michael Bay and Tony Scott, both of whom have helmed so many huge blockbusters like The Rock and Transformers that they can sell one on their involvement alone, use uninteresting set-pieces as an excuse to shake the camera and cut haphazardly from one shot to the next; Kaufman, who directed Cuba Gooding Jr. in The Hit List, knows what he has, and he’s not afraid to use it.
Although Kaufman offers decent shootouts at a discount price, his script takes pages from the same playbook of tropes — the two cops who set aside their differences to work together, the climactic gun battle, the icy villain in a suit, etc. — that just about every police procedural thriller (Above the Law, Dirty Harry and Rush Hour) recycles to a fault. It’s a credit to Strong, who has a memorable role in Blackhawk Down as a Delta Force sniper who fights off hundreds of terrorists to save a downed pilot, that he can sell it convincingly. He plays tough but with enough sensitivity to evoke some degree of inner turmoil. If nothing else, he hits his marks, and he makes his fights look good; in a film like Sinners and Saints, that’s all an actor really needs to do.