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Night Falls On Manhattan

Rated R, 114 min. Directed by Sidney Lumet. Starring Andy Garcia, Ian Holm, Miguel Ferrer, Lena Olin, Richard Dreyfuss.

REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., May 16, 1997

There's an adage in baseball that when a hitter can no longer crush his favorite pitch, it's time to consider retirement. Sidney Lumet's latest return to the muscular urban law enforcement/courtroom drama genre that's served him so well in the past (Serpico, Prince of the City, The Verdict) suggests it may be time for him to heed that advice. Lumet's adaptation of a novel by Robert Daley, who also scripted Prince of the City, isn't exactly a pastiche of the aforementioned films, but it does cover a lot of the same ground: corrupt cops, morally compromised public officials, the protean nature of truth and justice in our legal system. Unfortunately, the most pertinent law here is that of diminishing returns. Lumet and Daley simply appear to have forgotten everything they once knew about lean, reality-based storytelling -- a fact that no amount of bluster, superstar charisma, and stylistic virtuosity can conceal. Perhaps the most vexing flaws in this movie are its irresolute plot structure and tone. An initially straightforward tale about a young New York assistant D.A. named Sean Casey (Garcia), whose first big coup is convicting a drug dealer who shot his father and several other cops during a botched arrest, quickly mutates into an exotic garden of tangled concurrent plotlines vying for our attention. Seemingly important characters, such as a grandstanding Alan Dershowitz-like defense attorney (Dreyfuss) are vividly introduced, only to vanish for long stretches. Expected story developments fail to materialize, and others drop from the blue sky with no apparent rationale. Equally annoying is the film's inability to decide whether it wants to be a conventional melodrama -- a view the manically overacting Holm and Ferrer obviously subscribe to -- or a dark, nihilistic satire in the vein of other Lumet films such as Network. The latter theory is especially dubious. While a few scenes do manifest Chayefskian tendencies toward larger-than-life characterization and emotional hyperbole (only without the laughs), I attribute this more to a simple lack of directorial control than calculated effect. It's the same inattention to detail that lets a Hispanic actor (Garcia) play an Irishman with Italian mannerisms. A closing speech by Casey to a group of novice lawyers tries valiantly to throw a conceptual net over the sprawling mess we've just seen, but there's no getting around it: Night Falls on Manhattan is a wild, corkscrewing swing and miss by Lumet. With two strikes on the board, even his most loyal fans now have to wonder if the sturdy old slugger is finally losing his eye.
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