Rated R - Running Time: 1:48 - Released 9/6/02

It's interesting that I went to see Michael Caton- Jones's City By The Sea on September 11th. The appearance of the World Trade Center towers, which show prominently but could easily have been removed, is something I probably would have noticed anyway, but on this day it was particularly resonant. It is somehow indicative of director Caton-Jones's decision to let this film stand on its own merits, unadulterated and unashamed, without relying on post-production work to smooth the rough edges and edit out those things which may cause painful memories. Because painful memories are an integral part of this film, one which ultimately provides a showcase for excellent acting by some older, established performers and also some newer faces. A gripping drama involving a New York detective with a complex web of family problems, it allows Robert De Niro to show once again that his range is wider than simply a variety of "goodfellas," and his young co-star, James Franco (some may remember him from the vastly underrated and now defunct TV show Freaks & Geeks), proves he has the technique to run with the big boys. Likewise, the ever-reliable Frances McDormand lends her significant technique to a supporting part, and 22-year-old Eliza Dushku proves she is able to handle more than teen sex comedies and Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Written by Ken Hixon (based on the Esquire article "Mark of a Murderer" by Mike McAlary), the screenplay is not without its trite elements, but for the most part it pulls its weight, delving deeper into the human condition than would be required from a lesser film.

The city referred to in the title is Long Beach, New York, a place known in decades past for its low crime rate and pleasant seaside atmosphere, which has fallen into decay in subsequent years. The town's downfall was instigated, at least in part, by the 1959 murder case of a man accused of smothering a baby whom he had kidnapped from its wealthy parents, intending to demand a ransom. The man, who was executed in the electric chair, turns out to be the father of De Niro's character, Lt. Vincent La Marca, who was only 6 at the time. Since then, Vincent has tried to live his life above reproach, "to be so good," as he puts it, "that nobody could pin anything on me." But that all changes when Vincent's estranged and heroin-addicted son Joey (Franco) is accused of killing a man, and then another—the second being Vincent's own partner (George Dzundza). Suddenly with his famous family name back in the papers and his NYPD colleagues out for blood, Vincent must try to patch things up with Joey while attempting to bring him to justice. At the same time, he is faced with explaining all this to his neighbor and lover, Michelle (McDormand), who didn't even know he had a son, and with yet another family-related issue of which he himself was not aware.

While some of the events and dialogue in this movie get increasingly unlikely as its final reel unspools, the actors put forth uniformly solid performances, and DeNiro shows some emotion he doesn't usually reach in his more familiar roles. Franco, looking like a young Keith Richards but with all the miles, really shines as the confused youth who wants to get straight but hasn't the willpower. Essaying smaller but no less challenging roles are Dushku as Joey's strung-out girlfriend, caught in her own emotional spiral, and William Forsythe (De Niro's old pal from Once Upon A Time In America) as the villainous dealer who is connected to them all. In addition to the quality of acting, director Caton-Jones achieves a nicely decrepit atmosphere, showing the titular city in the abject shadow of its former glory, the seedy, gritty backdrop for this desperately emotional story.

Amid the sea of mediocrity that has become the rule of American cinema, it's nice to go to a city like this, where competent acting (rather than glitzy computer effects work) is the primary industry. ****½

Copyright 2002 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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