Combustible Celluloid
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With: Vin Diesel, Peter Dinklage, Linus Roache, Ron Silver, Alex Rocco, Annabella Sciorra, Raul Esparza
Written by: Sidney Lumet, T.J. Mancini, Robert J. McCrea
Directed by: Sidney Lumet
MPAA Rating: R for strong language and some violence
Running Time: 125
Date: 02/16/2006

Find Me Guilty (2006)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Self Defense

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Veteran director Sidney Lumet returns to the big screen with his best film since Running on Empty (1988) and a junior companion piece to his 1957 debut, 12 Angry Men, although quite a bit more subversive.

Vin Diesel of all people turns in a surprisingly nuanced performance as New Jersey gangster Jackie DiNorscio, a real-life character who defended himself in court during the longest mafia trial in U.S. history. With his teddy bear-grin and charming, comical patter, he's the tortoise who trumps the more experienced hares. Jackie's schtick is that everyone likes him; when that works out for him, he smiles and smiles, but when it doesn't, he allows a genuine confused hurt to creep into his eyes.

Apparently based on court transcripts, half the job is already done for Lumet and his co-writers T.J. Mancini and Robert J. McCrea. They merely fill in the character gaps by depicting a few key evenings and lunches between court dates, and it works spectacularly.

Lumet gets a great deal of help from actors like Peter Dinklage (The Station Agent) as a crafty lawyer assigned to the mobsters, and Ron Silver as the stern but humane judge, who quickly find a warmth and comradeship together. Annabella Sciorra has one moving scene as Jackie's ex-wife, and Alex Rocco (Moe Greene in The Godfather) as the mafia don scowls throughout the proceedings.

From his early days on live television, Lumet is an old hand at keeping action moving within a limited space. He effortlessly finds a way to keep the courtroom sequences on a visual plane, using high and low shots to emphasize power and/or defeat, and angles to show the course of the trial going unexpectedly off-kilter.

The film's major flaw is the one-note, haranguing prosecutor (Linus Roache), who quickly brings audience sympathy to the gangster's side. Indeed, it can be a bit disconcerting to find oneself rooting for the so-called bad guys -- especially guys that more or less existed in real life -- and many of the film's harshest critics have taken the film to task for this.

Yet unlike a recent spate of message movies that tell audiences what to think and how to assign "good" and "bad," Find Me Guilty turns such notions upside-down and forces audiences to ask what happens when the bad guys win, as they so often do in real life? Or worse: what happens when the bad guys aren't really all that bad?

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