Sidney Lumet returns to his pet theme of personal honour versus political compromise in Night Falls On Manhattan, an uneven, sprawling melodrama that's ultimately redeemed by the veteran director's absolute belief in his subject matter. This is, of course, a quality lacking in many of today's fast-buck purveyors of wafer-thin, effects- laden candyfloss (Joel Schumacher, we're talking about you).
Taken from the novel Tainted Evidence by Robert Daley (whose complex work has previously been adapted as Michael Cimino's Year Of The Dragon and Lumet's own internal affairs epic, Prince Of The City), Night Falls On Manhattan works best during its flashy first half, which details Casey's grooming as DA in waiting, his impressive courtroom grandstanding and his steady rise to power. The first hour succeeds, and this despite the director's bizarre central casting: Sean and his dad Liam, who form the more-Irish-than-10-pints-of-Guinness Casey family, are - bewilderingly - played by smouldering Hispanic Andy Garcia and our very own BAFTA-winning luvvie-in-chief, Ian Holm. Needless to say, the sight of a venerable English Shakespearean booting down ghetto doorways and yelling "motherfucker!" takes a fair bit of getting used to.
Fortunately, the method in Lumet's madness soon becomes apparent: the mismatched pair are soconvincing in their roles that their real-life non-Gaelic heritage ceases to be of issue. Delivering a lead performance which at last matches up to the star potential he showed in The Untouchables, Andy Garcia's crusading DA is the clean-cut epitome of slick courtroom cool. And Holm, once he's settled into the unlikely hard man act, is at his crinkly-eyed best as the disillusioned old cop, delivering an impressive Noo Yawk accent and sharing some genuine paternal chemistry with the boy Garcia.
As with most actor-friendly Lumet projects, Night Falls benefits from a powerful and well-rehearsed supporting cast, the only exception being out-of-place Bergman alumnus Lena Olin, whose talents are squandered on a token female role. Richard Dreyfuss makes the most of his cameo as Casey's legal nemesis, an anti-establishment defence lawyer hellbent on exposing police corruption, while James Gandolfino, beefily impressive as the smiling hitman in True Romance, scores with another amiable-yet-foreboding turn as Casey Snr's compromised partner.
But, sure-footed as the others are, each and every one of them is blown off the screen when Ron Leibman's loud, flamboyant District Attorney makes a scenery-chewing appearance. Fans of '70s obscura may, or may not, remember Leibman's anything-for-a-bust detective in The Super Cops, or his warped charm offensive as a reformed convict-turned-lawyer in the late-night TV crime drama Kaz. Now, after years of dividing his time between Broadway and occasional TV cameos (slimy media baron in Central Park West, Rachel's party-crashing dad in Friends), Leibman is back on the big screen at his schmoozing, deal-making best, busy running roughshod over the DA's office and dominating Night Falls' early scenes with his own toothsome brand of pure, nervous energy.
However... Night Falls doesn't live up to its opening act. Why? Because of Lumet's self-penned, weakly plotted script, which fails to display the clever complexity of those he's written with collaborators. That said, his heavy telegraphing of every twist, and the lack of any real surprises, disappoints only when compared with his Oscar-nominated back catalogue (Dog Day Afternoon, The Verdict etc) - and Lumet dialogue still exhibits all the old power. In the hands of any other film-maker, Night Falls' romantically stylised ruminations on idealism, corruption and betrayal would appear schmaltzy and overblown, but here Lumet inspires his actors to deliver potentially duff and/ or embarrassing material with real passion and depth. The looks on their faces say that they mean what they're speaking, not that they're switching to auto pilot and waiting for the pay cheque to come in.
This great director has crafted a film which rakes over ground he and other talented people have trodden before. A couple of decades ago, it would have stood out as a solid programme-filler, but even now it's a sure-footed, professionally assembled movie that's always watchable. Despite its flaws, it's a welcome antidote to a summer afflicted with one (or two) too many assembly-line blockbusters.
Nervy dynamo Ron Leibman takes top honours amidst a blinding cast, while Lumet delivers another razor-sharp dissection of New York City's overworked criminal justice system. Not this director's best (he gave us 12 Angry Men and Serpico, after all), but a long way from being his worst (The Wiz).