Monday, March 15, 2010

Q & A

Among the many genres prolific filmmaker Sidney Lumet has dabbled in, the one in which he excels and demonstrates the most affinity for is the crime thriller. In particular, he is fascinated with police corruption and how the law and order system works (or, in some cases, doesn’t work) in New York City. In the 1970s, he told the story of an undercover cop who deals with corruption among his fellow officers with Serpico (1973). In the 1980s, he depicted the plight of a police detective that informs on his cohorts after being busted himself in the magnum opus Prince of the City (1981). In the 1990s, Lumet tackled police corruption yet again but this time via the angle of racism with Q & A (1990). Based on the novel of the same name by New York judge Edwin Torres, Lumet’s adaptation received mixed reviews from critics and was largely ignored by audiences of the day. It has become something of a forgotten, underappreciated film in Lumet’s filmography and one that deserves to be rediscovered.

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.

11 comments:

  1. Saw this around '90, maybe '91, with my friend, whose dad got bootlegged Academy screeners all the time. Was too young to appreciate it at the time. Based on your review, I will revisit.

    ReplyDelete
  2. This is one of Lumet’s films that has alluded me, along with “Night Falls on Manhattan.” I remember the lukewarm reviews the film received at the time of its release and that probably gave me reason at the time to not see it. With these four films, Lumet has kinda created his own little sub-genre. Another one for the list J.D. Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  3. The first two Lumet films you mention (SERPICO and PRINCE OF THE CITY) are a pair of my favorites for this director. This film and NIGHT FALLS ON MANHATTAN have also escaped me. The acting by the three lead sounds like a tour of the lives and landscape I've got to take in. Another of your fine film examinations, J.D. Time to get me some more NY crime/police drama by the master of that genre. Thanks for this.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Ned Merrill:

    I never saw the film when it first came out but I ran across a DVD review for the film years ago on a website and it really intrigued me. Plus, with guys like Nolte and Assante in the cast, how could you go wrong? It is definitely worth another look. I am curious to read your thoughts on this one.


    John:

    At times, PRINCE OF THE CITY, Q&A and NIGHT FALLS ON MANHATTAN almost seem like R rated episodes of LAW & ORDER... not that that's a bad thing, mind you! But you are right about the sub-genre observation. Lumet has carved out a little niche for himself with these kinds of films as he does them so well.


    le0pard13:

    I love SERPICO and PRINCE OF THE CITY, the latter of which I wouldn't mind writing a review of at some point.

    If you like them, I think it's a safe bet that you will dig Q&A and NIGHT FALLS. It's weird how both of these films have become largely forgotten but are quite good, featuring some powerhouse acting. Plus, I'm a sucker for crime films set in NYC.

    Thanks for stopping by and the kind words!

    ReplyDelete
  5. I never read the book source for SERPICO, but did with PRINCE OF THE CITY (before the film adaptation hit the screen). I think the screenwriter did an excellent job in adapting it. I look forward to Q&A and NIGHT FALLS. Thanks, J.D.

    ReplyDelete
  6. J.D., I recall vividly that I once wrote a scathing dismissal of this film, but my coming here to comment is not meant to demean this wonderful treatment nor to deny that I basically agree with your notion that there are great and perceptive moments in this Lumet picture, but the total doesn't seem to add up to much. I couldn't take Nolte here, but I must confess this is one genre that I like less than any other.

    The film has many admirers, and they (like yourself) have offered up some compelling reasons why the film may have been underestimated.

    ReplyDelete
  7. le0pard13:

    I have yet to read the source material that any of these films are based on but I am certainly intrigued - esp. in the case of PRINCE and Q&A. Your praise for the adaptation of PRINCE esp. makes me curious to check out the book its based on.


    Sam Juliano:

    To each their own, eh? I certainly respect your opinion and this film is definitely not for everyone. It is pretty abrasive and downright cynical about the judicial system but on the level of acting it is pretty riveting stuff.

    As always, thanks for stopping by and offering your perceptive comments.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I also read Bob Leuci and Robert Daley's riveting book PRINCE OF THE CITY, and Lumet and Jay Presson Allen did a great job adapting the book. Aside from the names being changed, it is really very faithful. Note that Rudy Guiliani was the inspiration for the character of Mario Vincente (played by Steve Inwood).

    I'm also proud to say that my cousin played one of Ciello's (Treat Williams) children as a baby in one scene--it's the scene where Ciello is trying to convince his wife (Lindsay Crouse) he won't be a rat by cooperating with the anti-corruption commission while, at the same time, feeding his toddler (my cousin).

    ReplyDelete
  9. Ned Merrill:

    Wow, that's very cool about the Guiliani connection. I had no idea. I really need to watch PRINCE OF THE CITY again.

    Nice to hear about your personal connection to the film what with your cousin having a small role in it. Not too shabby at all!

    ReplyDelete
  10. This would almost be a perfect film for me- except for the HORRIBLE Blades score and the less than satisfactory conclusion. I really don't know what Lumet/his producers were thinking when they let Blades compose this monstrosity. Maybe his head wasn't in the game- maybe he was too concerned about PREDATOR 2. I've theorized previously that this was just that awkward musical span when the 80's segued into the 90's- as something like Wang Chung in TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. works perfectly in '85 because Friedkin builds an aesthetic which perfectly compliments it. But here, it's like the the soundtrack and the movie are operating on two completely opposite wavelengths.

    Regardless- Nolte is absolutely terrifying and well worth the price of admission. Always nice to see Luis Guzman and Paul Calderon in meaty roles, as well.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Sean Gill:

    I certainly agree that Blades' score is horribly out of place and almost takes you out of the film at times, esp. during the opening credits! Good call on Wang Chung's score for TO LIVE AND DIE IN LA (a film I plan to write about soon) and I think that it also works for that film because Friedkin actually edits certain sequences to the rhythm of the music! Amazing stuff.

    Getting back to Q&A, fortunately, the film is redeemed by the stellar performances from all involved. The ending didn't bother me too much. Sure, it was a little too convenient and a little too Hollywood but what are ya gonna do?

    And I also second the kudos to Guzman and Calderone. Love both of those guys and they always seem to enliven whatever film they appear in no matter how minor the role.

    ReplyDelete