During the opening credits we see the rain-slicked streets of New York City through the back seat of a cop car. This sequence sets a nice, gritty tone and takes us on a mini-tour of the city where most of the film’s action takes place. However, Ruben Blades’ jarring song that plays on the soundtrack almost ruins it. I’m not quite sure what Lumet was thinking but it simply does not work here.
Lieutenant Mike Brennan (Nick Nolte) is a dirty cop as evident from his introduction where he ambushes an unarmed Latino drug dealer, blows the guy’s brains out and then bullies two nearby witnesses into saying that the man had a gun in his hand. Assistant District Attorney Al Reilly (Timothy Hutton) is assigned to the case. His boss tells him that the incident is a cut and dry one. He is told that Brennan is a good cop – a little rough in his methods but all of his cases have been tried successfully with no appeals. Reilly is instructed to collect the facts with the help of a stenographer and present them to a grand jury. His boss instructs him that “the Q & A defines what really happened. If it’s not the Q & A, it didn’t happen.”
Reilly is eager to please and is impressed with Brennan’s imposing presence and reputation. The young A.D.A. questions Roberto “Bobby Tex” Texador (Armand Assante), a drug dealer and racketeer, who, along with his wife Nancy (Jenny Lumet), witnessed the aftermath of the murder. He refutes the theory that the gun was found on the murder victim. Reilly begins to suspect that something might not be right with the case. He is also faced with a personal conflict as he used to be involved with Nancy and still has feelings for her. Reilly soon realizes that’s he’s taken on more than he can possibly handle. Sidney Lumet pits Brennan, Bobby Tex and Reilly against one another, each with their own agenda and the film gradually heads towards an inevitable confrontation between the three men.
Nick Nolte is a lot of fun to watch as a larger than life cop. He sports slicked back hair and a thick mustache that threatens to overtake his mouth. There’s a memorable scene early on where his character recounts a story to some other cops about how a mobster gave him a hard time when he tried to fingerprint him that is hilarious and disgusting. The scene has an authenticity of a veteran that delights in telling old war stories to inflate his own ego. Nolte’s Brennan is a chatty guy that loves to tell stories of past glories as he tries to buddy-up with Reilly until the A.D.A. lets him know that he’ll go after the veteran cop if he finds out he’s dirty. Nolte’s whole demeanor changes in a heartbeat and it is quite exciting to see him go from jovial to threatening in the span of a few seconds. Brennan is as corrupt as they get and enjoys the influence he exerts and the power he wields. He uses fear and intimidation to get what he wants. Nolte put on 40 pounds for the role because he felt that the character required it: “just the sheer mass of brutality. I felt that would be the right kind of thing. He had to be on the edge of his own dissipation.”
Armand Assante is a force of nature as Bobby Tex, portraying the crook with an aggressive swagger and an intensity that is impressively conveyed in his eyes. During Reilly’s initial questioning, Bobby oozes casual confidence and Assante does a great job of conveying it. He also imparts a keen intelligence. Bobby isn’t just some two-bit street punk. He doesn’t even blow his cool when Luis Guzman’s cop gets all in his face. Bobby matches his intensity and it is great to see two skilled character actors go at it. Assante ups his intensity when he warns Reilly to stay away from his wife. He gives the A.D.A. a seriously threatening look that would have most people shaking in their shoes. It’s Bobby’s first appearance in the film and Assante makes quite an impression.
Up against two lead actors playing colorful characters, Timothy Hutton wisely underplays Al Reilly. His character may be young and new to the job but he knows the law as demonstrated when questioning a mobster by the name of Pesch (Dominic Chianese) and his lawyer (Fyvush Finkel) in rather confident fashion. At first, it appears that the slick mob lawyer is going intimidate Reilly but the young man expertly turns the tables with his intelligence. Hutton is good as the straight arrow A.D.A. that decides to take on a highly respected cop and in the process uncovers an intricate web of corruption. The actor avoids stereotyping by showing layers to his character through the revelation of his feelings for Nancy which affects his approach to the case. Reilly starts off as an idealistic person but over the course of the film, as he’s exposed to corruption, he gains experience and becomes savvier when it comes to how things work. Early on in Q & A, there is a revealing conversation he has with Leo Bloomenfeld (Lee Richardson), a veteran attorney that has clearly been working in the system for far too many years. He’s jaded and tells the eager Reilly how things really are, giving him a taste of the corruption he will witness first hand later on. To prepare for the role, Hutton went on squad-car runs with police officers in Manhattan in order to get an idea of the challenges they face on the streets. He said of the experience, “in many cases the hands of the officer on the street are tied.”
Lumet shows how close these cops are by the short-hand between them and the familiarity they have with each other. In the scene where Reilly questions Brennan about the homicide in a room full of cops, the director really captures the camaraderie among these men. The dialogue sounds authentic and is delivered by the actors in a way that is so natural you believe that they are these characters. Consummate character actor Luis Guzman has a memorable role as a homicide detective that first suspects the Brennan case is rotten. He has a memorable moment where he jokingly defends Brennan’s casual racism: “He ain’t no racist. He hates everybody. He’s an equal opportunity hater.” Even though this is said in jest, in actuality it’s not far off the mark.
Q & A received mostly positive reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half stars out of four and wrote, "It is fascinating the way this movie works so well as a police thriller on one level, while on other levels it probes feelings we may keep secret even from ourselves." Rolling Stone magazine’s Peter Travers wrote, "Lumet tries to cram too much in ... But he's onto something, and you can sense his excitement. This is Lumet's boldest film in years – a combustible drama with a vivid, shocking immediacy. The director is back at the top of his game.” The Washington Post’s Hal Hinson praised Nick Nolte's performance: "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.” In his review for the Globe and Mail, Rick Groen praised Armand Assante's performance: "in a role that could easily descend into cliche – the crook with a moral code – Assante does his best work to date, always keeping on the safe side of the stereotype.” Newsweek magazine’s David Ansen wrote, "Nolte, with a big paunch and a walrus mustache, is a truly dangerous presence here; he uses his threatening body and a high, strained voice to stunning, scary effect. Like the movie, Nolte really gets in your face and, for a long time afterwards, sticks in you craw.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film an “A-“ rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “Q&A is a major film by one of our finest mainstream directors. As both a portrait of modern-day corruption and an act of sheer storytelling bravura, it is not to be missed."
However, in his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, "great little scenes overshadow bigger, more important ones. Characters come and go at speed. Watching the movie is an entertaining ride, but when it's over it's difficult to remember where, exactly, one has been." USA Today gave the film two-and-a-half stars out of four and wrote, "Overkill ultimately wears Q & A down, despite two bravura performances and some Hutton understatement that's adequate to the task. So, too, does unrelenting sordidness, a deadly love angle and a score (Ruben Blades) almost as awful as Cy Coleman’s sabotage of Lumet’s Family Business.”
One of the major themes Q & A wrestles with is racism. There is the casual kind between black, white and Latino cops and there’s the more damaging kind that resulted in the end of Reilly and Nancy’s relationship years ago. Racism informs a lot of the characters’ decisions and often motivates their actions. The film addresses racism in an honest way that you rarely see outside of a Spike Lee film. As he did with Prince of the City and later with Night Falls on Manhattan (1997), Lumet sheds light on how cops and crooks can be intricately linked and just how deep corruption runs in a sprawling metropolis like New York City. These films show how law and order works in fascinating detail and that feels authentic, much like the television show Law & Order does year in and year out.