Friday, April 11, 2008

Prince of the City

The Sidney Lumet films Network and 12 Angry Men are top-tier films (two of my all-time favorites, in fact) and both share a tendency toward the theatrical, featuring brazen, full-throated performances that reek of grease paint and sweat-stained costumes baking under a bank of fresnels. But, even as the actors are biting into their lines with thespian glee, Lumet's no-nonsense, no-frills directing grounds the gesticulations and exultations with the verisimilitude of his sets and locations and the relative stillness of his frames. That these films emerge as such transcendent experiences owes, no doubt, a large amount to their scripts, but enough cannot be said of the light, assured touch he brought to the helm of these productions. For whatever reason, Prince of the City is missing that same deft captain, for Treat Williams, clearly pouring his heart and soul into his part as the lead of the film, walks the razor-thin line between "theatrical" and "overacting," stumbles, and falls into the abyss of acting hell.

Williams plays Daniel Ciello, a New York cop working in an elite Special Investigations Unit of the narcotics division. He's got the wife, the kids, and a nice house that he's paid for with money stolen from crime scenes. Daniel and his partners in SIU work with very little oversight from the authorities and, with this freedom, they regularly, casually wet their beaks with the drugs and money they come across in their duties. At first Daniel feels perfectly justified in this, a fact he loudly and violently espouses to his junkie brother, but when a special federal investigation begins to sniff around for corruption in his department, he volunteers to cooperate and expose the problems in the department. He has only one proviso: he will not, under any circumstances, betray his partners. As he investigates and then testifies against his fellow police officers over a period of years, Ciello's loyalties and identity shift; he becomes unravelled and paranoid as a result. His life is threatened on numerous occasions, his resolve weakens, and he's torn between telling the truth and protecting his partners.

The film makes great hay out of this grist for police procedural. The grit and grime of narcotics work is effectively and quickly etched, and, later in the film, there are many compelling, impressive shots of the corridors of power, where larger-than-life men decked out in tuxedos, judicial robes, and expensive suits (seemingly) decide the fates of the lesser folk, hunching over their declarations in conference rooms and hotel rooms. The melodrama of the plot is neat, well-researched fun; the script has the authentic air of a newspaper's well-documented expose of one man's fight to make things right in a world gone wrong and Lumet's way of capturing the movement and life of the New York locations only adds to this real-world air.

Meanwhile, all this authenticity is going to waste because no one, it seems, is keeping an eye on the acting of the movie. Not fifteen minutes into the movie Daniel has the aforementioned confrontation with his brother and it's like a parody of a scene between two method actors. Both actors are shouting at each other, Williams is pushing the brother, shouting some more, and it's all very deeply felt and passionate, but everything from the blocking to the vocalizations to the camera movements feels utterly rehearsed and choreographed. For all the shouting, there's no life in the scene and, what's more, it comes about an hour too early. This tone-deaf quality to the acting carries throughout, despite a slew of well-cast, solid actors (Jerry Orbach! Lance Henriksen! Bob Balaban! and more!).

Indeed, poor Treat Williams. My only other experience with the actor was as a low-rent Harrison Ford in Deep Rising (he's an absolute joy in that film), and it's clear from this movie that he's probably "got the goods," but no one's minding the store. Particularly in the early parts of the film, it seemed he was going for a Pacino Award for most unmotivated shouting in a feature film, as almost everything he says turns into a completely spontaneous and overwrought cry of rage and frustration with no build-up. Later, as the character unravels, he's awash with ticks, grimaces, unconvincing winces. More frustrating (and indicating Lumet as the source of the problem), as Ciello turns into a raving lunatic, other, rational characters don't seem to notice that he's gone nuts. They talk to him as if they can't tell he's falling apart and often act as if his Parkinson's flavored response is a sane response. The obliviousness of the characters is frustrating and Williams' performance is stranded as a result.

The film is annoyingly repetitive as well. Around the eighteen thousandth time Ciello agonized over whether he should betray his partners or tell the truth about illegal activities, I longed for the quick and tidy wrap-up of a Law and Order episode. The script favors accuracy to life over drama, going through long-winded procedural patches depicting the nuts and bolts of Ciello's ordeal, seemingly unaware that the same dramatic beat was handled five minutes prior. It starts to feel padded out to its 168 minute running time, making Ciello's story more significant than is earned.

Prince of the City certainly has merit, particularly as the investigations begin. When a wired Ciello goes undercover to get crooked cops confessing to misdeeds on tape, it's enjoyably suspenseful and nicely wrought. However, these moments are wrapped in a beginning and ending that miss the mark entirely, and what might have been a fine, even powerful performance is run aground and abandoned, forced to dine on the desert island scenery. Alone.

Would make a good double feature with: Scarface (1983)

1 comment:

Prince Of The City said...

Prince of the city is the film that has been released in 1981. It is great drama film..I was of only 2 years old at that time..I heard many times about this film but never got any chance of watching it..