Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

You could never accuse David Mamet of lacking ambition. For his third film as writer/director the renowned playwright, prolific screenwriter and leading member of American culture’s ‘awkward squad’ decided to combine a New York police procedural with a conspiracy theory thriller and an examination of anti-Semitism and the Jewish sense of identity in the post-Holocaust era.

If these contrasting elements never quite gel, it still leaves a characteristically thought-provoking and literate film, whose atmosphere of divided loyalties and hard moral choices places it closer to classic noir than even its creator perhaps intended.

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Unusually for a writer who, on stage and screen, is celebrated for his dialogue the opening is wordless, but crackles with tension, as a SWAT team prepares to take down a fugitive in a dingy New York tenement. The suspect is Robert Randolph (Ving Rhames), a cop-killer on the FBI’s Most Wanted list. And at the end of a bloody, realistically confused shoot-out he’s still at large.

The film then moves into more typical Mamet territory, as two homicide department detectives, Bobby Gold (Joe Mantegna) and Tim Sullivan (William H. Macy) are called in. During a tense, rapid- fire dialogue scene the cops are ordered by the Feds to use their prior knowledge of Randolph to bring him in – and a dig at the FBI from Gold prompts an insulting reference to his Jewishness, which enrages Sullivan.

Gold – secular, non-practising and with his sole allegiance the NYPD – is much less aggrieved. But on his way to a rendezvous with an informant who may have news of Randolph, he receives an emergency call to a shooting incident. The victim is an elderly Jewish shopkeeper in an impoverished, predominantly black neighbourhood, but she has wealthy and influential relatives who persuade the department to assign Gold to the case.

He is outraged at being diverted from the Randolph hunt to what he regards as a relatively trivial matter, succumbing to the same prejudices as his colleagues regarding the Jewish community’s political clout. A scene with the victim’s granddaughter (Rebecca Pidgeon) combines a trademark Mamet rant and some exquisite, almost Pinteresque social embarrassment to devastating effect.

As his investigation proceeds, Gold finds himself more and more caught up in the old lady’s family history. He also has his eyes opened to the extent of underground anti-Semitism in his city and begins to feel that what he initially dismissed as paranoia was justified fear of a conspiracy; one that still regards the only solution to the ‘scourge’ to be a policy of extermination.

Eventually he discovers that the family have links to an equally secretive organisation determined to fight fire with fire – and what they require of him will test his loyalty to the law, his colleagues and even his country to the limit...

Typically for Mamet, no-one gets an easy ride. Every character’s motives are questioned and he paints a picture of a society in which we all choose sides eventually, for better or worse. He’s equally adept at probing the audience’s attitudes, inviting them to question the casual racism and unthinking assumptions deployed by virtually all of the main protagonists.

His desire to cover so many bases and still keep the narrative of the two investigations rattling along sometimes results in a lack of focus. Regular Mamet collaborator Mantegna turns in a terrific performance as a man gradually realising that even his cop ‘family’ regard him as different and that without their loyalty he has nothing to anchor his life. But his conversion from uncaring agnostic to passionate Zionist warrior still seems a little rushed. A longer running time – or a judicious trim by Mamet the director of his own dialogue and atmosphere-heavy screenplay - would have allowed the film’s disparate elements more room to breathe.

But the compensations are many, not least the cinematography of Brit veteran Roger Deakins. The testosterone, sweat and fag-smoke ambience of a New York precinct house is so well-realised that you might want a shower afterwards and when the action moves outside he paints New York in an almost universal damp autumn hue. The scenes in the elegant apartments of the victim’s family, by contrast, have a sparse, European art- house feel which accentuates Gold’s sense of dislocation and forcible reacquaintance with his race’s history. But the pace never slows down too much and the action sequences – from the opening through to a harrowing climax and its bleakly ironic coda – are right out of the top drawer.

A top-notch supporting cast grab meaty roles by the throat, too. Macy delivers another peerless performance as Sullivan, a spiky, sinewy Irish terrier of a man, but with an unswerving commitment to his job and a gruff tenderness towards his partner that only increases when he goes off the rails. Rhames impresses in an early turn as the hard-ass Randolph, undone in the end (like many of the characters) by an Achilles heel in his character. And Pidgeon (aka Mrs Mamet) delivers a typically calm, unshowy but commanding character study as the grieving, enigmatic granddaughter.

The relationship between her character and Mantegna’s is another element I wish the film had spent more time developing. Like much of Mamet’s work, it’s something of a boys’ club and if you’re not a fan of his staccato, elliptical dialogue this is unlikely to convert you. It lacks the precision-tooled tightness of his directorial debut House of Games or the poetic resonance of his script for The Untouchables. But it’s still a laudable attempt to bring an extra dimension to the ‘cop on the edge’ scenario – and a reminder that the evils of the past had their roots in everyday attitudes which still prevail all too often.

Reviewed on: 20 Sep 2011
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Homicide packshot
A Jewish detective finds his loyalties and sense of identity questioned when he investigates a murder with anti-Semitic overtones.
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Director: David Mamet

Writer: David Mamet

Starring: Joe Mantegna, William H. Macy, Vincent Guastaferro, Ving Rhames, Rebecca Pidgeon

Year: 1991

Runtime: 102 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


SSFF 2011

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The Untouchables