When actors Ben Gazzara, Robert Vaughn, Tony Roberts and Paul Sorvino team with scriptwriter Budd Schulberg on a movie about police corruption, something of a definitive treatment is anticipated. However, "A Question of Honor," a three-hour drama on Channel 9 tonight at 8, misses that mark, sliding into the boring category of conventional.
The time and the situation, again, are the days of the infamous Knapp Commission investigation into corruption in the New York City police department. Ben Gazzara, the clean cop in narcotics, missed his chance to star for the Giants baseball team and has been working his way around Queens and Brooklyn for 15 years, waiting for his grand slam. In Washington, Robert Vaughn, an assistant attorney general, is aching to snare the bad guys in New York and designs an elaborate scheme that unintentionally involves Gazzara. The trap revolves around Paul Sorvino, a drug kingpin from Italy, who in trying to aid Vaughn gives Gazzara the ultimate test of his honesty.
In "Honor," Gazzara is a thoughtful, persistent man, who for some unexplained reason doesn't realize everyone is double-crossing him. In movies, as in boxing, the clean fighters don't produce exciting bouts. The result is a movie doughnut, packed around the edges with intelligent acting, but missing the tension of the story and the twists of character development. Watching the finely honed professionalism of the stars, who also include Danny Aiello, Steven Inwood and Anthony Zerbe, is the best reason for the viewer's three-hour investment. Even "Serpico," one of its genre ancestors, wasn't three hours long. And with a cast so readily identified with this kind of drama, there is quality in the performance, but the overall result is predictable.
On the surface, "Honor" is expertly crafted, with lightning editing and tight dialogue. When Tony Roberts, a colleague involved in double-crossing Gazzara, gives Sorvino $10,000, Sorvino, with wonderful precision, asks, "Do you need a receipt?"
But these moments don't balance the familiar scenario of bribes, subway chases and family neglect. "Honor" becomes tedious when the obvious is piled on the obvious. For example, when Sorvino is nabbed in Italy, an American cop tries his halting Italian, and then says, "Tell him he gets to come to America at our expense." Looming next is a panorama of the U.S. Capitol building.