June 11, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT

More than a few times on their often jovial commentary on Mystic River, Tim Robbins and Kevin Bacon marvel at the thrifty, well-oiled machine that is a Clint Eastwood shoot. The cast and crew nailed scenes in one or two takes. If a shot called for sun but rain came, Eastwood went ahead rather than waste precious time. The 300 or so birds hired for a visual effect aren’t cooperating? Scrap it and move on. The actors were so geared to Eastwood’s pace that even if coffee was spilled (Bacon) or fingers burned lighting a cigarette (Robbins), they just barreled through the take, reveling in the spontaneity.

Such no-nonsense direction benefits the noirish side of this quasi-Greek tragedy in which three childhood friends (Bacon and Oscar winners Robbins and Sean Penn) are haunted by a past incident and present-day murder. As two detectives, Bacon and Laurence Fishburne duet with pithy, B-movie grit. And the supporting cast of mostly unknown actors like Kevin Chapman and Adam Nelson (as the aptly named Savage brothers) effortlessly conveys coarse, hardened life.

But Eastwood’s ”old-fashioned” approach (as he describes it on one of the docs) doesn’t always jibe with the film’s reach for melancholic profundity, sometimes forcing Penn, Robbins, and Harden to carry too much of the film’s emotional weight. For every stirring operatic outcry (Robbins’ horrific vampire speech, Penn on a porch wrestling with grief), there are others that verge on kitchen-sink histrionics. Though it obviously goes against Eastwood’s grain, a dollop of cinematic oomph (those 300 birds?) might have given the actors a breather and their highs even greater lift.

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