Judge Brendan Babish thinks this movie is just asking for it.
Sometimes the best defense…is a wiseguy.
With Arnold Schwarzenegger opting for politics, and Sylvester Stallone suddenly irrelevant, Hollywood needed a new monosyllabic action hero. Enter Vin Diesel. After The Fast and the Furious and xXx, Diesel firmly entrenched himself atop the hulking actor hierarchy. And with 2005's The Pacifier Diesel also showed he was viable as a comedic star as well. Still, like most action/comedy stars, Diesel wants to be taken seriously as an actor. So he hooked with legendary director Sidney Lumet (Dog Day Afternoon, Network) in the lighthearted drama Find Me Guilty. The movie grossed just over $1 million dollars in the U.S. Does that mean it's 1/56th as good as The Pacifier?
Facts of the Case
Find me Guilty is based on the true story of Jackie DiNorscio (Diesel), a New York mobster who defended himself in the longest mafia trial in U.S. history. At the trial, Jackie was joined by 19 co-defendants, all of whom had opted for outside council. Jackie, who was already serving a 30-year sentence for drug charges when the trial began, was offered a chance to testify against on his friends and get his sentence reduced. He angrily refused.
As the 21-month trial ran on, DiNorscio amused the jurors with his salty language and straightforward questioning. His fellow defendants, and their lawyers, were annoyed by his sophomoric antics, but it soon became clear that DiNorscio might just be crazy enough to keep them all out of jail.
Sidney Lumet was awarded an honorary Oscar at the 2005 Academy Awards. At the ceremony, a montage of the Lumet oeuvre was shown. Amongst the many great films was a clip of Vin Diesel, sporting a bad hair weave, loudly emoting in the middle of a courtroom. Playing alongside scenes from The Verdict and 12 Angry Men, Diesel's acting ability seemed particularly amateurish. At the time, I thought Lumet's extended losing streak, which includes A Stranger Among Us and Guilty as Sin, was about to be extended. Turns out I wasn't exactly right, but not exactly wrong either. Find me Guilty is certainly better than some of Lumet's inexplicable clunkers, but it's hardly a return to the glory of his films from the '70s either.
Vin Diesel's performance, like the movie itself, is serviceable, but hardly inspiring. At one point Joe Pesci was attached to star, in a role catered to his strengths. The character seems to have been written for a schlepy, unimposing actor. Also, in court Jackie displays a quick wit and acid tongue that is far more befitting Pesci than the oafish Diesel. Try to imagine Diesel playing the title role in My Cousin Vinny. That's pretty much what you get here. It's interesting, but hardly feckless, casting.
Still, the bigger problem with the movie is the story. There is very little drama built up as the film nears resolution. Instead, Lumet constantly telegraphs the conclusion in nearly every courtroom scene. Additionally, there is the wee small problem that Jackie, the man we're supposed to be rooting for, is a violent criminal. I'm sure there are plenty of viewers who won't mind rooting for the bad guy (which, admittedly, was quite fun in the underrated Payback), but I found it to be a little awkward. Jackie and his fellow Mafioso thugs are drug dealers and murderers, and we are supposed to celebrate their ability to use charm and plausible deniability to earn an acquittal?
To get around this sticky subject, Lumet and screenwriters hastily manipulated the district attorney's character to make him a whining, moody asshole. This would supposedly turn the audience against the prosecution, and swing their affection towards Jackie and the mob. For example, when the D.A. quite reasonably explains that it is inappropriate for jurors to laugh at Jackie's jokes, seeing that the trial involves very serious charges, his face turns red and he bangs on his desk like an irate monkey. This scene serves no storytelling purpose. It's contrived and, ultimately, unconvincing.
However, there are still reasons to enjoy this film. Periodically Jackie gets off a good line. Peter Dinklage (The Station Agent) gives a masterful performance as the head defense lawyer. And, with a cast that features 20 defendants, 19 defense lawyers, a sizable prosecution team, and a gaggle of witnesses, Lumet does an expert job fitting 21 months of court proceedings into a brisk two hours. Admittedly, as a whole, the acting is only fair, and the story often rankles, but this is a fairly entertaining film that will probably keep you entertained.
Fox has obviously put little effort into this DVD package. The extra features consist merely of an underwhelming trailer and a brief interview with Sidney Lumet. At least the transfer itself is well done, with sharp colors and a clear soundtrack. Still, with a movie based on a true story, the lack of a featurette on the real Jackie DiNorscio, or the trial itself, or his co-defendants is, well, almost criminal.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Any chance Find me Guilty had of finding an audience on DVD was probably blown by the cover art. With a horrible title, off-putting orange background, and a picture of Vin Diesel looking particularly clueless, many people are going to assume this is a low-budget film made before Diesel's big break that is being re-released to cash in on his current celebrity. While that is not the case, I still wouldn't be surprised to find this sitting in the discount bin near the checkout lane in the near future.
Though this film is not an embarrassment to anyone involved, Find me Guilty is unlikely to inspire strong positive or negative reactions from its audience. If you like mob comedies, such as Analyze This! or The Sopranos, you'll probably enjoy yourself. If your yearning for mafia films have been satiated (like mine was, ages ago), feel free to skip this.
You asked for it: Guilty.
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