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'Night Falls' and Can't Get Up

By Eric Brace
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 16, 1997

"Night Falls on Manhattan" finds director Sidney Lumet mining his familiar territory of corrupt cops and courtroom drama, but if you’re hoping he’s brought something fresh to the topic of justice in the Big Apple, you’ll be disappointed.

While the predictable lesson -- that justice isn’t cut and dry -- clogs the film’s gears by the last reel, at least the first half of the movie has some lively story telling.

As Sean Casey, Andy Garcia plays a new assistant district attorney in Manhattan. He believes in the legal system (a remarkably naive position for someone who worked as a beat cop while going to law school at night) and carries the truth as his guiding torch. His father (Ian Holm) is a veteran detective. We meet dad on a stakeout, hoping to collar drug kingpin Jordan Washington (a slickly menacing Sheik Mahmud-Bey). When he moves in for the bust, dad gets blasted and Washington gets away by killing a couple of policemen and stealing their car.

With dad recovering in the hospital, the Manhattan D.A., an ornery Yiddish-spouting politico played by Ron Leibman, decides it would be a great public relations move to let young Casey prosecute the man who shot his father. Washington is caught and brought to trial. His attorney, Sam Vigoda (a low-key Richard Dreyfuss), claims self-defense for his client, saying corrupt cops were about to execute Washington over a drug turf war.

Casey wins the case, his dad gets better, the mayor loves him, the city loves him, and while his career becomes a meteor, the movie sputters. He falls for Vigoda’s assistant (Lena Olin), and the two of them make the dullest Hollywood couple in memory. Olin and Garcia are two actors whom you can say are easy on the eyes, yes? But there’s no sizzle. When she invites him home, she sounds like she’s ordering takeout. In her home, they spend time in desultory conversation and eating scrambled eggs. No passionate kisses. Not one. Not even when he proposes. Just perfunctory pecks. The two of them are movie brake pads. Around their budding non-romance, the film rolls on, filled with confusing edits and the seemingly random passage of time. Casey runs for D.A. after the ornery D.A. has a heart attack (from a wheelchair, he dispenses nuggets like, "Look kid, what you’re searching for in this place, you’re not gonna find it.") It turns out Vigoda’s defense was accurate: Plenty of corrupt cops did want his client dead. And when Vigoda presses Casey to follow through with police prosecutions, Casey (with jaw squared) says "You get me evidence and I’ll follow it wherever it leads."

So, is his dad corrupt? Is his dad’s partner? "Was Jordan Washington the only honest witness at the trial?" Casey shouts as he searches his soul. He wonders if he shouldn’t have gone into the ministry as his dead mother had hoped. He wonders if he can be open with a sweetie who works for the public defender’s office. And where’s that warrant his dad was carrying when he was trying to bust Washington?

There are plenty of well-filmed scenes of New York in all its glorious grime and decay, and Lumet gives evil a nice touch by having all the bad guys (from drug dealers to corrupt cops to press pool reporters) seeming to always be laughing at some inside joke. The joke is that the world is going to hell in a handbasket, and there are still people like Casey running around talking about "Justice." The final scene of Casey delivering a speech to new assistant D.A.’s on the gray areas of justice brings the movie to a screeching conclusion, a paltry end from the man who brought us "Serpico," "Dog Day Afternoon," "Prince of the City" and "The Verdict."

NIGHT FALLS ON MANHATTAN (R) — Contains some blood and profanity, but not much graphic gore.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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