When the questions are dangerous, the answers can be deadly.
Sidney Lumet's Q & A falls squarely into a sub-genre the director himself helped bring to the fore with one of his finest works, 1973's Serpico: cop films in which the plot and characters are driven by systemic corruption inside the police force itself.
Facts of the Case
Assistant District Attorney Al Reilly (Timothy Hutton) is assigned his first case, a seemingly run-of-the-mill incident in which a veteran New York City cop, Detective Lieutenant Mike Brennan (Nick Nolte), shot a Puerto Rican street thug named Tony Vasquez in self-defense. Reilly's assignment is to put together a Q & A document by interviewing Brennan and other witnesses, a document that will collect facts and, presumably, demonstrate the detective was doing his job.
Things get complicated when the testimony of Puerto Rican gangster Bobby Texador conflicts with Brennan's. If that wasn't enough of a thorn in Reilly's side, the wet-behind-the-ears ADA also discovers his former fiancé, Nancy (played by Lumet's daughter, Jenny), is now Texador's girlfriend, creating a possible conflict of interest.
As Reilly follows the chain of evidence, meticulously building his case, complex relationships between the parties involved in the incident, the police department, the district attorney's office, and…but I've said enough already. My description doesn't do justice to the complexities of Q & A's plot, but it's a movie best approached cold, so I'll say no more.
Sidney Lumet and police corruption flicks go together like love and marriage, popcorn and movies, chocolate and peanut butter…you get the picture. In truth, Lumet has delivered a wide variety of films in his long and storied career as a director, including 12 Angry Men, Murder on the Orient Express, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, Equus, Deathtrap, and The Morning After. Still, he's probably best known as the director of films about noble law enforcement officers struggling to do their jobs despite the dirty players around them. The reputation attaches in large part because of Serpico, easily one of Lumet's best films (and a movie that showcases one of the strongest performances by Al Pacino, one of film's finest actors), but also because he's made a sort of tetrology of cop-corruption: Serpico (1973), Prince of the City (1981), Q & A (1990), and Night Falls on Manhattan (1997). The first film is clearly the big daddy of the group, but the other three ain't bad and, despite some flaws, Q & A is a worthwhile cinematic ride.
Q & A has two major differences from Serpico. The first is its tone, which is darker, more bleak and nihilistic. If Frank Serpico is the lone man who can make a difference, even if the personal cost of doing so is tremendous, Al Reilly is smaller, weaker, less able to see the wheels of corruption in which he's caught and, therefore, more ineffectual. Serpico has an air of counter-culture, anti-authoritarian hipness; Reilly is a paper-pusher played by all sides, naïve, an unwitting cog in the machine he's trying to topple. Umm…that's all. I'll say no more for fear of ruining the experience of those coming fresh to the film. I hope I haven't said too much.
The second major difference between Q & A and Serpico is that the former is much more of an ensemble piece. If Reilly is just a cog in the machine of corruption, it's largely because the film is more concerned with the complex workings of the machine itself than it is with the interests of any single character. I'm not saying character is subordinate to plot. On the contrary, character drives the plot, but each individual in the film is defined in relation to everyone else. Corruption is not an abstract here; it's the product of human relationships within the context of law enforcement: relationships between cops and criminals, cops and lawyers, lawyers and criminals. Corruption is bred in conflicts of interest which are inescapable when you introduce real human beings into the disposition of justice. In this way, Q & A also belongs to that sub-genre of sprawling cops 'n' robbers films that throw a vast menagerie of characters at us, then wow us with the intricacies of their hidden connections and relationships. If you enjoyed Michael Mann's Heat or Steven Soderbergh's Traffic, Q & A should be right up your alley.
Having said that, Nick Nolte's performance is one of the film's great strengths. His portrayal of Mike Brennan comes off like a sleazier, seedier, meaner, and more malevolent and vice-ridden (if not quite as smart) version of Orson Welles' Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil. The aggressive latent homosexuality, manifested in cruel use of physical force, which dominates the performance, makes one's skin crawl. I felt a deep sense of dread any time another character was alone with Brennan. It's like Nolte's channeling the domineering and too-male physicality of Brando or Rod Steiger at their most threatening.
Hutton's no slouch either, playing the all-too-human Reilly. But this is Nolte's show.
As a whole, the acting should be better when one considers the supporting cast. Armand Assante is appropriately slimy as the drug-running Bobby Texador, Charles Dutton (Roc) is excellent as Detective Sam Chapman, and Patrick O'Neal as Quinn, the DA's homicide chief, makes us wonder at each turn of plot which side he's on. Soderbergh ensemble player Luis Guzmán (Out of Sight, Traffic), usually reliable, turns in one of his most uneven performances, whipsawing between wooden and natural. The fault, I think, is the dialogue, which is sometimes off-rhythm and overly expository. At other times it's very natural, which only further highlights the stilted portions. And Jenny Lumet wins the Sophia Coppola Award for underqualified directors' daughters who stick out like sore thumbs because they've been tossed in among a cast of actors far more experienced and talented. It doesn't help that the dialogue in her scenes with Hutton veers into over-the-top melodrama and is among the worst in the film. Neither is she assisted by the fact the triangle between herself, Hutton, and Assante is never satisfactorily developed, and the conflict of interest it creates for Hutton is never fully exploited. One begins to wonder why her character is there at all.
Most disappointing about the film, however, is that the third act relies heavily on an action by one of the characters that is fairly outrageous, hyper-dramatic, and not satisfactorily set up in the previous acts, making it feel like a cheap plot device, a deus ex machina, instead of an event that flows naturally out of the character's story arc.
Despite all this, the film mostly works. It's not perfect, but it's still very good, an engaging piece of entertainment. It keeps one guessing. Lumet shows again how smart and controlled he can be in doling out information to his audience, creating a film whose fast pace and surprises seem (with the exception of the example above) organic and unforced.
Fox's DVD is the definition of barebones: it doesn't even offer a trailer. The 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer is strong, however. Despite significant grain in isolated shots, colors are natural overall, with strong black levels. Keep in mind, the film is clearly meant to have that gritty, naturalistic, French Connection look, and the DVD delivers on that aesthetic. In some ways, the cinematography looks more characteristic of the 1970s than the early '90s, but this is a Sidney Lumet police drama, so that shouldn't come as a shocker. Source elements aren't pristine, but they show no distracting wear and tear. Fox has treated Q & A well.
The soundtrack is very active for a stereo mix. It's so rife with the background noises of New York City, it makes one wish for a 5.1 surround track. Otherwise, the mix is clean with dialogue always clearly presented despite the layers of background noise. There are isolated instances of subtle distortion from the source, but it's never so bad the track sound shrill or tinny.
Q & A isn't Serpico, but what is? Despite its imperfections, the film offers a rich tapestry of characters and engaging twists and turns, all handled by the deft hands of Sidney Lumet. It may not be among Lumet's very best, but it's still much better than most directors could deliver.
My only beef is the complete lack of extras on the disc. It's a minor issue because, let's face it, this isn't a release for which scads of people were drooling with anticipation. Their loss. It's all about the movie, and the fact Fox has released Q & A on DVD at all is a good thing. I'm going to let them off with a slap on the wrist.
All charges against everyone else involved are dropped, and all parties are free to go.
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