Film: Men of the City

Veteran directors Spike Lee and Sidney Lumet return with a pair of powerful NYC-set dramas

Mar 29, 2006 at 2:06 pm
Will Hart

Hello, can you say career makeover?: Vin Diesel plays Jackie DiNorscio, a New York wiseguy on trial, in director Sidney Lumet's Find Me Guilty.

Spike Lee and Sidney Lumet, two of New York's finest, offer up new projects on cops, robbers and mobsters that epitomize our conception of the underbelly of the City.

In Hermit in Paris: Autobiographical Writings, writer Italo Calvino noted, in a diary entry from his brief stint in the U.S. (1959-1960), hearing repeatedly that "New York is not exactly America." The sentiment is still true, possibly even more so today. The fixation of the literal and metaphoric grit and dirt of the City has achieved a mythic status, especially outside the Northeast where the skyscrapers and supermen roaming the landscape loom large onscreen.

With Inside Man, Lee directly references Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon in its premise as well as quintessential New York acting legend Al Pacino's character in Serpico, another Lumet classic. In a great throwaway exchange between Clive Owen's criminal mastermind Dalton Russell and Denzel Washington's besieged hostage negotiator Keith Frazier, Russell refers to Frazier as "Serpico," alluding to his status as the good cop wading too deep in the quagmire.

Along with the cool, deliberate Russell, Internal Affairs wants to drop the proverbial hammer on Frazier for a rather hefty sum of evidence missing from another case. But Frazier is the far less shady flipside to Washington's bad penny in Training Day.

As Frazier's good partner, Bill Mitchell, Chiwetel Ejiofor holds his place adequately, but the real pleasure comes from watching Christopher Plummer and Jodie Foster as a couple of shadowy players attempting to manipulate the pawns in the drama.

Their presence, along with Willem Dafoe as a police captain, strengthens the foundation of this genre effort. They masterfully elevate the game without taking it over.

Lee manages to deftly handle the thrilling heist elements, injecting subtle (especially for him) racial references that touch on the post-9/11 environment without drawing such heavy-handed attention as he might have in the past.

The script is pinpoint accurate on race. Especially attuned is a scene involving the release of a hostage who is identified and summarily stereotyped as an "Arab" due to his turban, when in fact the man is a Sikh. It presents a sharp contrast to the clumsy, preachy tone of recent Oscar winner Crash.

Gone is Lee's need to rant in the mirror (see Ed Norton's bathroom tirade from The 25th Hour). In its place is an acknowledgement of continued ignorance and arrogance of the City and, by direct extension, our nation.

Inside Man takes its time exploiting the narrative upper hand it possesses, flashing forward to expose the confusion in the aftermath of the caper as Frazier and Mitchell attempt to interview hostages in order to uncover possible accomplices. But the tricks never create an unnecessary distraction, even when all is revealed.

The revelation occurs much like the moment in The Usual Suspects when the interrogating agent comes to realize the truth, but here it's not overplayed to the point of simplifying the punch. While there is a degree of resolution, questions thankfully remain. Yes, the City is full of players and inside men.

With Find Me Guilty, consummate film insider Lumet (Q&A, The Verdict) emerges to reclaim his spot in the bright lights. And he brings along another New York type, a wiseguy named Jackie DiNorscio (Vin Diesel) who has far more in common with Tony Soprano than any of the Corleones.

Guilty is a true story based on DiNorscio's role in the longest Mafia trial in United States history brought against Nick Calabrese (Alex Rocco) and 19 of his alleged criminal associates. DiNorscio drew special attention during the proceedings by handling his own defense despite his lack of legal expertise. His approach is to convince the jury that he's not a gangster but a gagster through his crude charm and disruptive ability to rattle witnesses on the stand.

He remains steadfast to a "family" that is highly suspicious of his motives and afraid that his act will land them all in jail alongside DiNorscio, who was already serving a 20- to 30-year sentence at the time of the trial. Lumet focuses on DiNorscio's simple desire to receive love and acceptance from those he holds most dear, whether they be his flesh and blood — including his drug-addled cousin Tony Compagna (Raul Esparza), who shoots him four times in an effort to kill him early on — his neighborhood pals and fellow defendants or the inmates on his cell block.

The kicker is that Guilty finds Diesel in much the same position as DiNorscio. The gravelly-voiced tough guy seeks to convince audiences and Hollywood insiders that he can handle dramatic roles and his eagerness fuses perfectly with the character's own motivations.

It's easy to lose sight of the action anti-hero poses in Diesel's comic portrayal of a wiseguy playing a wiseass. Yet, the hint of fury lurking just below Diesel's rippling surface also reminds viewers that Jackie DiNorscio has spent more than half his life in jail for more than cracking bad jokes.

As Judge Finestein, Ron Silver mixes authority and compassion in equal measure to take the edge off the expected courtroom bombast. In addition, the supporting presence of Peter Dinklage as Defense Attorney Ben Klandis offers steely competence and intuitive protectiveness of DiNorscio, is a persuasive counter to the aggressive bullying of Prosecutor Sean Kierney (a suitably blustery Linus Roache).

It is not the furious banging of the gavel or fiery cross-examinations that rule these proceedings but the sympathetic exchanges between Dinklage and Diesel that lend the filmed verdict a degree of authenticity that might have been lacking in the startling decision.

The City never sleeps, so the saying goes, and much goes on in the wee hours that would trouble the consciences of non-City dwellers. Yet, in the end, Lee and Lumet argue not for the guilt or innocence of New York but to let their stories speak for themselves. Inside Man and Find Me Guilty make powerfully entertaining cases. Inside Man grade: A; Find Me Guilty grade: B+