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Q & A (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 27, 1990

Sidney Lumet's "Q&A" is a burly, epically profane cop story about New York tribalism. Starring Nick Nolte and Timothy Hutton, it's about a city made up of fiercely self-protective clans, of blacks and Puerto Ricans and Irish and Italians, all jockeying for supremacy, all militantly loyal to their kind -- a dirty, brutal city at perpetual war with itself.

Along with "Serpico" and "Prince of the City," "Q&A" completes Lumet's unofficial trilogy of New York police stories. In scope and ambition it is more like the latter work -- not an urban snapshot but a sprawling, textured mural. Its vision is big and societal; he wants to tell us what our cities are all about, where we are as a culture. And where we are, he informs us, is in the stink.

Unfortunately, Lumet isn't the brawny social commentator he would like to be -- he's a Jimmy Breslin manque'. His script chronicles a complex, gargantuan evil, but his insights into urban life haven't progressed beyond those of his earlier films -- the chaos of conflicting interests and cultural hatred is one that by now we're more than familiar with -- and his storytelling style isn't compelling or tightly focused enough to keep our attention from flagging.

Lumet's portrait is of a New York fueled by interracial tussle -- it's the melting pot as pressure cooker. Along the hallways at police headquarters, in the bars and the interrogation rooms, the cops and detectives needle each other with the most creatively lurid racial epithets they can dream up. Ostensibly this is all in the name of joshing good fun, but Lumet points up the enmity underneath.

The fulcrum of the action here is a legendary Irish cop named Brennan (Nick Nolte) who one night kills a Hispanic hood outside an after-hours joint, then rigs the evidence to make it look like self-defense. As part of the investigation, a young assistant district attorney named Reilly (Timothy Hutton) is summoned in the middle of the night by his boss, Quinn (Patrick O'Neal), to conduct the Q&A for details to present to the grand jury. Laying on a thick coat of the blarney about the Irish brethren and New York's finest, Quinn tells the kid the Brennan incident is a cut-and-dried case of justifiable homicide. And his words have an unmistakable hidden meaning -- it's wagon-circling time for the Irish. And beyond that, there's another, equally meaningful, layer -- don't screw this up.

Though Quinn's point is clear enough to us, we're never sure if Reilly quite gets it. We're never sure, in fact, if Reilly gets anything. For the son of a cop and a veteran of two years in a Harlem precinct, Reilly seems almost pathologically slow on the uptake. Lumet seems to want us to think the character is guileless and honorable. Even though he was indirectly implicated in payoffs back in his old precinct, he seems baffled when evidence emerges indicating that Brennan may not be a hero, and that Quinn, who has political ambitions, may be involved in a kind of cover-up of Brennan's crime.

During the course of the film, Lumet peels back layer after layer of dirt and corruption. In his New York no one has a clear conscience or a clean record. Again, as he did in his earlier cop stories, Lumet identifies with the man who tries to hold onto his values long after those around him have given up the fight. Reilly's task is to follow the corruption back to its roots, and his progress from pristine innocent to heartbroken accomplice is the movie's spine.

With Hutton in the role, though, Reilly is too wan and doelike to engage our sympathies. In his faceoffs with Quinn and Brennan, Reilly encounters two vastly different styles of villainy -- the silken and the rough. Both men are utterly without conscience in pursuing their interests -- they're monsters. But Reilly seems neither outraged nor saddened by their actions. His reactions are what carry us through the picture -- he's our point of human contact -- and they're shallow and without resonance.

The picture does have two great performances. As Brennan, Nolte's belly pours over his belt like a beefy waterfall. Underneath the blobby heft, though, there's a layer of concrete. As a character, Brennan is almost pure hate -- it pours off him, so much so that it seems to emanate from his flesh. This actor doesn't flinch in the least from his character's unsavoriness; instead he seems to glory in his crumpled suits and unwashed hair, as if they were a kind of spiritual corollary. Nolte gives Brennan a kind of monumental brutishness -- he makes him seem utterly indomitable.

This kind of work isn't a surprise from Nolte. What Armand Assante does as Bobby Texador, a suave Puerto Rican underworld boss who becomes involved in Reilly's investigation, is. Assante's performance has a panthery sleekness -- his body seems coiled, lethal, and there's a tensile muscularity under his expensive silks. Watching him, I kept thinking of the early unpredictability of de Niro.

Nolte and Assante are the best of "Q&A" Hutton and Jenny Lumet, the director's daughter -- who get stuck together in a subplot involving an old romance that broke up when Reilly flinched at the discovery that his lover's father was black -- are the worst. By the end of the picture, everything has fallen out of proportion.

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