OK, You’re Guilty
...Of Helping Screw Up Sidney Lumet’s Latest Movie
12 Angry Men. Serpico. Dog Day Afternoon. Prince of the City. The Verdict. Sidney Lumet has forgotten more about cinematic cops, criminals, and courtrooms than any other filmmaker working today will likely ever know. And in Find Me Guilty the eightysomething writer/director is presented with an ideal Sidney Lumet setup: an almost-to-good-to-be-true true story from New York’s gritty 1980s that features mobsters, lawyers, and prosecutors going at each other in a courtroom with the fate of an entire Mafia crime family resting on the shoulders of one man. Unfortunately for all concerned, that man is played by Vin Diesel.
Diesel has proved himself a fairly reliable action hero in the the-less-said-the-better Arnold Schwarzenegger mode, and his turns in more serious fare, such as Saving Private Ryan and Boiler Room, have shown that any dramatic aspirations aren’t total hubris. But here he is wildly, utterly miscast. True to form, Lumet peoples his story with actors who look the part—from pallid, whip-thin Linus Roache (Priest) as an ambitious, attack-dog prosecutor to the high-and-tight-assed vibe of the actors playing various federal agents to the literal rogues’ gallery of lumpen-faced men cast as mafiosi. And then there’s Diesel, who sticks out in this company like an overmuscled, scrupulously waxed thumb, an alien invader from Planet Hollywood.
Diesel plays Jackie DiNorscio, a small-time wise guy serving 30 years in prison on a drug charge, who finds himself indicted along with more than 20 of his friends and associates as part of a sprawling racketeering case against the Lucchese crime family. Roache’s Sean Kierney offers to shave a few years off Jackie’s sentence in exchange for his testimony against his old crew. Not only does Jackie refuse the deal, he refuses to hire an attorney and represents himself. Rather than causing the courtroom debacle the other defense attorneys fear will send all their clients to jail for decades, Jackie’s regular-guy-from-the-corner charm and plain-spokenness beguiles the jury, and his common-sense questioning rattles prosecution witnesses.
The jury is one thing, but getting the audience to buy it is another matter entirely. Jackie is supposed to be a made mensch, a lovable, loving lug who genuinely believes that his familia is family, and that if he speaks his heart, no jury in the land can convict him. The best Diesel can do to embody this street-guy beatitude is a gape-mouthed grin and a “who me?” expression. His lines never fail to sound like lines and his attempts at physically selling his character provoke snickers. (He occasionally pulls up his shirt to show off perhaps the most bronzed and hairless pot belly in the history of mob flicks, as if to point out that he even skipped the gym a bit for this role.) Any time he shares the screen with a good actor—in short, most of the time—he suffers in comparison. Find Me Guilty could have literally been a different story with an ordinary-looking joe who could lend some subtlety, some soul, even some oddball charisma to Jackie (where have you gone, Burt Young?). Diesel brings none of the above.
Which is not to say the Guilty lacks fine performances. Roache rockets out of a decade of small roles and grabs the audience by the lapels with his driven D.A.; while trying to sell Jackie a plea deal, he kicks a steak dinner with all the trimmings all over his nice office and somehow doesn’t overplay it a bit. Likewise, TV veteran Alex Rocco brings a convincing permastoop and permasnarl to don Nick Calabrese, while Ron Silver provides a stabilizing influence on the trial and the movie with his variegated work as the presiding judge. Fans of The Wire will surely get a kick out of a small cool-customer turn by Domenick “Herc” Lombardozzi.
While Diesel may be Find Me Guilty’s biggest problem, he’s not the only one. During the courtroom scenes, Lumet is smooth and confident; shots of a noisy throng bustling through a courthouse hallway or a gang of mobsters hoisting a fellow hood’s hospital bed over a courtroom railing quicken the pulse with the Lumet urban energy of old. But the opening scenes, which are supposed to establish Diesel and the story, are a literal jumble, verging on narrative nonsense. Two lengthy scenes late in the going—Rocco playing cards with other crusty old gangsters and Jackie’s ex-wife (Annabella Sciorra) visiting him in prison—have no point, literally. DiNorscio’s story is a jaw-dropper, and Diesel deserves the jettatore for helping ruin it, but the movie he ruins is uneven at best.