"Night Falls on Manhattan"
Opened: May 16, 1997 | Rated: R
"Night Falls on Manhattan" is a movie one walks away from thinking about the director and his craft, or about how impressive a particular actor was. But few people will leave thinking about the story.
Director Sidney Lumet, who is no stranger to legal drama having helmed exemplary courtroom films like "Twelve Angry Men" and "The Verdict," wrote the script (from the Robert Daley novel "Tainted Evidence") and culls a few impeccable performances from his talented cast.
The characters are interesting and varied, the story has a torn-from-the-headlines feel, but if you miss it, you haven't missed much.
Following the career of Sean Casey (Andy Garcia), a lower-rung assistant district attorney, the film unfolds very slowly after the first few scenes in which his dad (Ian Holm), a veteran detective, is nearly killed in a shoot-out with a drug dealer.
The abrasive but politically savvy D.A. (Ron Leibman), for the sake of publicity, uses the rookie prosecutor to try the open-and-shut case against his father's assailant.
At first it looks like he may have more trouble than he bargained for when the defendant is represented by a high-profile ambulance chaser (Richard Dreyfuss) known for being slick. But the trial is over in the first 40 minutes and for the rest of the picture we're waiting for the other shoe to drop. It never does.
Casey is tapped to run for D.A. after his boss has a stroke and he wins in a landslide (good looks, high profile case -- you know how it works). He gets romantically involved with a rival attorney (Lena Olin) whom you half expect to betray him. He pursues a lead into a police corruption scandal that hits a little close to home -- but the movie doesn't build on any of this.
Occasionally jumping forward in spurts -- the corruption lead comes from Dreyfuss, who befriends him after the trial -- it mainly rolls along on an even keel, peppered with scenes that do little to advance the plot.
"Manhattan" is impressive on many fronts. Lumet's film offers no illusions about what it's like to work in a big city court system, what with its realistically cramped courtrooms and disinterested attorneys. The natural frustration and the urban flavor are there.
All the leading actors offer noble performances, especially Dreyfuss, as the antagonist with integrity, and Holm, who, having just seen him as a nervous priest in "The Fifth Element," shows great dexterity here playing a cynical, been-around-the-block Brooklyn cop.
But while the characters are interesting and the realism admirable, it's not quite enough to counter what becomes a stagnant story. Looking over my notes from the screening, I wrote "Is this going somewhere?" three times in the last half of the movie.
I knew it wasn't when the soundtrack resorted to the use of that whiny urban saxophone that has become a shopworn hallmark for signaling the poignant moments of generic gritty dramas.
"Night Falls on Manhattan" isn't a movie I regret seeing, but it is, at best, a renter for the night the video store is out of blockbusters.