For half a century, hot or cool, the trial dramas of director Sidney Lumet have established a clean, gliding visual order even when there's disorder in the court.
Before "Twelve Angry Men" (1957), Lumet worked in live television, a medium not conducive to a lot of fancy cutting. Now, a half-century later and a generation after "The Verdict," Lumet is back in court with the minor but well-crafted "Find Me Guilty." He's still going with what works: lengthy, leisurely takes allowing us to take in a lot of prime faces at once. (Spike Lee, he of the relentless "Watch me!" technique, could use a little Lumet in his diet.)
Based on the protracted 1986-88 criminal trial of the Lucchese crime family of New Jersey, "Find Me Guilty" stars Vin Diesel — with hair this time — as "Jackie Dee" DiNorscio, a New Jersey mobster who acted as his own defense attorney. Diesel's action audience won't be breaking down the multiplex doors to see him in a Lumet film, and a more kinetic movie made on the same topic would have a hard time competing with the new season of "The Sopranos." There is no denying a certain fatigue factor with this particular subject matter.
Yet just as the character of DiNorscio wades in over his head and does better than expected, Diesel comes out looking not like a star in the making, perhaps, but like a bankable name honing his craft, learning what he can from his cohorts.
The cohorts have been well chosen. Ron Silver, exquisite in his sarcasm, plays the presiding judge with limited patience for Jackie's stand-up courtroom routines. Peter Dinklage is an attorney who can't quite believe what he's seeing in Jackie. Alex Rocco portrays crime boss Nick Calabrese, as dry as dust but as dangerous as a cobra. And in the movie's standout scene, Annabella Sciorra rips into the cameo of Jackie's ex-wife. These and other performers bring shading and depth to a workmanlike script and help take your mind off certain well-worn trappings. (Louis Prima on the soundtrack? Again?)
You can find Lumet and his fellow screenwriters guilty of a few things, among them sentimentalizing a pretty hilarious miscarriage of justice. Jackie never ratted on his pals and associates, and for that he is treated by the movie with high respect. Lumet the director does not, however, make the mistake of going heavy with an essentially comic subject.
The exception is the meeting between Diesel and Sciorra. The latter knows she has a terrific opportunity at hand (it's her only scene), and she and Lumet make sure we know it too. The rest of the movie is more of a relaxed trot. But Lumet, who was 80 when he made "Find Me Guilty," has retained a lifetime of technique and sharp instincts regarding how to make a courtroom full of people worth watching.
"Find Me Guilty"
MPAA rating: R for strong language and some violence
A Yari Film Group release. Director Sidney Lumet. Screenplay by Sidney Lumet, T.J. Mancini, Robert McCrea. Producers Bob Yari, Robert Greenhut, T.J. Mancini, Bob DeBrino. Director of photography Ron Fortunato. Editor Tom Swartwout. Running time: 2 hours, 4 minutes.
In selected theaters.