City by the Sea (2002) Warner Brothers
1 hr. 48 mins.
Starring: Robert DeNiro, Frances McDormand, James Franco, George Dzundza, Eliza Dushku, William Forsythe, Patti LuPone
Directed by: Michael Caton-Jones

City by the Sea



Photo: Warner Brothers

Whenever you get to coral legendary cinema tough guy Robert DeNiro in anything that’s remotely connected with his screen persona - particularly playing hard-boiled cops or no nonsense mobsters - you know that crime doesn’t pay. But you also know that you’re likely to see DeNiro in one of his prototypical dynamic complex modes he loves to exhibit in effortless fashion. As NYC homicide detective Vincent LaMarca, the lead protagonist in director Michael Caton-Jones sluggish and slow-paced conventional crime melodrama “City by the Sea”, DeNiro pretty much offers the audience more of the same harried character that he’s tapped into countless times before. Despite a top-notch cast of players and a visually grainy cinematography that strangely gives this cop saga its atmospheric luster, Caton-Jones (“Rob Roy”, “The Jackal”) doesn’t quite elevate “City by the Sea” beyond its rudimentary status amongst the handful of law enforcement dramas we’ve seen circulating on the big screen lately.

“City by the Sea” is based upon the 1997 Esquire magazine article “Mark of a Murderer” that was penned by writer Michael McAlary. Ken Hixon’s script is an infusion of stale dialogue that feels woefully outdated, storyline plotting devices that mechanically trudge along, and a theme that’s not all that compelling considering its inspiration was from a noteworthy crime story. Word has it that this tepid cliched’ crime flick sat on the shelves at Warner Brothers for over a year until its current release now (isn’t this the same stunt that the movie studio pulled off for its other belated released project - the rightly maligned cosmic comedy “The Adventures of Pluto Nash”?).

The setting for this premise takes place in the Long Island section called Long Beach (a.k.a. the nickname “City by the Sea”) where LaMarca has to launch his investigation regarding the latest murder case to upset that community. LaMarca knows the area quite well since he hails from this very same place that provided so many conflicted memories growing up. The weary detective has seen it all in his checkered policing career dealing with murder and drugs. But this time, LaMarca’s involvement with this pending murder mystery takes on a whole new meaning. Unfortunately, LaMarca has to face the gritty fact that his estranged drug-addled son Joey (the Golden Globe-winning James Franco from the cable movie “James Dean”) may be involved in this mayhem since solid evidence convincingly links him to the crime. Predictably, this puts LaMarca in a precarious bind - will he be true to his profession as a dedicated law-enforcing officer or will he sacrifice this credo to protect his flawed family? The movie quickly establishes the redemptive “sins-of-the-son” motif at the expense of the “flawed but well-meaning distant father” angle. Sounds painfully familiar, huh?

Feeling guilty about his past mistakes as an ineffective patriarch, LaMarca owes it to Joey to try and support him. Joey may be a stone junkie who has known conflict all his life, but his father has to work feverishly to disprove Joey’s alleged participation in this lingering homicide investigation. Of course the media hype is played to the hilt as everyone in the region seems to be fascinated by the father-son spectacle that this case has progressively drawn. The one good thing about this ugly episode is that it served as the catharsis for Vincent and Joey to get back together and hash out whatever differences they have had in the past and certainly in the present. When Joey pleads his innocence (while not proclaiming complete sainthood) about his involvement with his murder investigation, LaMarca becomes stridently determined to get to the bottom of this regrettable incident by clearing his wayward son’s name.

“City by the Sea” simply cannot conquer its perfunctory leanings as an arbitrary by-the-numbers crime thriller. Caton-Jones tries desperately to sprinkle in a flurry of tension by awkwardly turning the movie into a character-driven study of redemption set against the backdrop of the working-class seediness meant to play up the poignancy factor. But the sentiment remains the same in that “Sea” is a pared-down and choppy bland crime caper that periodically manages to effectively conjure up a thrill. As for the stellar performers rounded up in this prosaic project, you’d expect more bounce for your box office dollar. Instead, the aforementioned DeNiro is in neutral control as he assumes the usual inner-struggle cop routine. Franco is believable as the strung-out Joey but he’s held under restraint thus not giving his alter ego any more leeway to stretch out his characterization. Ubiquitous character actor George Dzundza is wasted as the obligatory comical tubby sidekick cop to offset the intensity of DeNiro’s bombastic Vincent LaMarca. And the award for being stuck as the transparent gals-in-waiting in this testosterone tale are Oscar-winning Frances McDormand (“Fargo”) and Eliza Dushku (“Bring It On”) as the women in the complicated lives of the LaMarca men.

As a feature, “City by the Sea” had more than enough ammunition to go beyond its mediocrity as a dime-a-dozen crime thriller. If the film had only bothered to take it up a few notches and buck the superficial confines of a flavorless crime saga, then this vehicle would have been a lot more appetizing in its zealous state. This “Sea” washes up on shore as doomed as a dead carcass being pushed on the beach courtesy of an errant wave current.

Click here to comment on this review or post your own thoughts.

Frank Ochieng



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