Friday, September 18, 2009

DVD of the Week: Homicide: Criterion Collection

Homicide (1991) is a rather odd entry in the cop film genre as it features a Jewish police detective forced to come to terms with his own faith – albeit filtered through David Mamet’s uncompromising view of the world. It is not an easy film to pin down which may explain why it’s not as celebrated as other Mamet films like House of Games (1987) or The Spanish Prisoner (1997) but it deserves to be ranked right up there with his best efforts. For years, Homicide has largely been available on VHS and now, thanks to the nice folks at the Criterion Collection, it is finally available on DVD.

The film begins with an explosive situation. The FBI raids an apartment of a known drug dealer but in the ensuing chaos, one of the suspects – an African American (Ving Rhames) – escapes. The mayor is facing all kinds of heat about the nature of the case and it’s up to the police to track down the fugitive. Detective Bobby Gold (Joe Mantegna) is a hostage negotiator who uses his powers of persuasion to convince the fugitive’s mother to cooperate. At a briefing, Bobby gets into it with a city official who is a blunt, tough-talking type a la Alec Baldwin’s ballbuster in Glengarry Glen Ross (1992). Things get heated and the man calls Bobby a “kike,” which really sticks in his craw because he’s never thought about his religious heritage much.

While en route to apprehend a known associate of the fugitive, Bobby and his partner, Tim Sullivan (William H. Macy) come across a homicide. The owner of a convenience store has been murdered. Intriguingly, the old woman was Jewish and her store was located in a predominantly African American neighborhood. A couple of local kids claim that she was killed for a fortune she had stashed in her basement. Despite his protestations, Bobby is put on the case and is told that the deceased woman’s son has a lot of pull downtown. He specifically requested that Bobby be put in charge of the investigation. The woman’s family is quite affluent and very devout in their faith. They feel persecuted and that this murder is just another example of the continued discrimination against their race. The more time Bobby spends on this case and gets to know the Klein family, the more in touch he gets with his own heritage.

Mamet regulars Joe Mantegna and William H. Macy are very believable as tough talking cops. They’ve got the lingo and the swagger down cold. They are experts at delivering Mamet’s stylized dialogue. But this is Mantegna’s show and he is excellent as a man who is ignorant of his own tradition. He is forced to confront it head on. The case gets its hooks into him and he discovers that there is much more to it than meets the eye.

Homicide takes an unflinching look at racism, from the casual epithets that the cops throw around to the feelings of persecution that the Klein family feels. Not many American films have the courage to address this topic with such frankness but Mamet has never been known to be timid about any topic. The film is also an engrossing mystery and a character study as Bobby gets in touch with his faith and begins to question his own identity. He is faced with a troubling conflict: where do his loyalties lie – with the Jews or with the cops? Mamet doesn’t give us any easy answers but there never are when it comes to complex issues like race and religion.

Special Features:

There is an audio commentary by writer/director David Mamet and actor William H. Macy. The actor mentions that he hung out with homicide detectives and said that they saw the worst aspects of humanity. Mamet points out that many of the actors playing cops worked with him during his early days in Chicago theatre. Macy says that this was his first major role in a film and talks about how his style of acting changed when he met Mamet. The filmmaker talks about the origins of the project and how it started as a book but after hanging out with his cousin – a New York City cop – it gradually turned into a screenplay. These guys banter back and forth like the old friends that they are on this highly enjoyable track.

“Invent Nothing, Deny Nothing” features five Mamet regulars talking about their experiences with the filmmaker and their work on Homicide. Joe Mantegna says that many Mamet protagonists pursue excellence and that this was his take on Bobby Gold. He also describes Mamet’s dialogue as hyper-real. Steve Goldstein describes Mamet as a generous director and talks about the filmmaker’s take on acting. Ricky Jay says that he feels most comfortable with Mamet’s dialogue and tells a story about how he struggled with a scene in Homicide. J.J. Johnston and Jack Wallace point out that Mamet writes for specific actors and tailors to their personality. They also talk about how they met and first worked for Mamet.

“Gag Reel” is an amusing collection of blown lines and actors goofing around on set.

Finally, there are four T.V. spots.

6 comments:

  1. There are two writer/directors in particular that I'll watch (among other reasons), no matter what, just for a chance to listen to their dialogue spoken by the actors. One is Quentin Tarantino, and the other is David Mamet. Their written words are just magic for the ears and mind- that and their creative ability for the use of epithets sprinkled so generously among syllables.

    I remember I once had this on VHS. Glad to see it back, and with the Criterion folks, no doubt. This story really puts the protagonist, and audience, threw the old ringer, too. Great stuff. Thanks for this, J.D.

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  2. le0pard13:

    I agree with you in that if Mamet is involved chances are I will watch it sight unseen, esp. his directorial efforts, many of which I've thoroughly enjoyed. Like yourself, I've had this film on VHS and yet it's not one of Mamet's films that I've watched many times. Checking it out again after all this time made me look at the film in a new light and I enjoyed it a lot more. Nice to see Criterion giving this their typical deluxe treatment.

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  3. Hey there. Great post. I hope you've been having a wonderful weekend. Take care. Cheers!

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  4. Keith:

    Thanks, Keith. I hope you had a good weekend.

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  5. "FBI couldn't find Joe Louis in a bowl of rice."

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  6. Heh! Yeah, that is a fantastic quote from this film. Ah, Mamet-speak is so quotable.

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