[box cover]

Find Me Guilty

Some time in the mid-'90s, one of the big TV newsmagazines followed a bunch of aspiring filmmakers around the Sundance Film Festival. One of them was Vin Diesel. Vin and his posse were mercilessly pimping one of the two films he wrote, directed, and starred in before he was famous. Memorably, the correspondent went out of his way to make fun of Diesel's relentless self-promotion, summing up his indie film as "Vin Diesel… Vin Diesel… and more Vin Diesel" over a montage of the actor swaggering on-camera. Of course, it worked. Based on the strength of his Sundance showing, Steven Spielberg gave Diesel a cannon-fodder part in Saving Private Ryan, and the rest is infamy. Still, it's hard to shake the impression of that TV report: There's almost always a whiff of naked, strutting egotism in Vin Diesel's role choices, which isn't necessarily bad. When Diesel's peacock charisma is part of his character (Pitch Black, Fast and the Furious, xXx), he's fun to watch — sort of coming off as The Rock's lunkhead younger brother. But lately, there's been a sense of his career being self-consciously, and badly, designed: He botched his bids for the blockbuster action crown (The Chronicles of Riddick) and the counterprogrammatic family-comedy scepter (The Pacifier). And now he's grabbing for the Serious Actor cape. Diesel plays real-life RICO defendant Giacomo "Jackie Dee" DiNorscio in Sidney Lumet's return to the courtroom, Find Me Guilty (2006). And while it isn't Lumet's best work by a long shot, it plays to Diesel's strengths. In fact, he carries the movie. Taken partly from court transcripts, Guilty follows the legendary trial in which then-New York D.A. Rudy Guiliani tried to take down 20 mob defendants on 76 charges, all at once — at 627 days, the longest Mafia trial in U.S. history. And Jackie Dee, the moron, chose to fire his overpriced lawyer and defend himself after refusing to drop a dime. Structurally, the film ebbs and flows like a real trial, giving it a rhythmic, lulling quality that doesn't always make for great drama. Lumet does a masterfully low-key job of arranging 40-odd character actors (including the great Alex Rocco) in a film frame for the entire movie. And yes, he lets the great Peter Dinklage score charisma points as one of the mob lawyers. But the whole thing has a mild made-for-TV odor. Lumet tries for a hit-and-miss tone of jaunty Little Italy whimsy, and he blatantly, simplistically stacks the decks in favor of the defendants — pitting them against mean, stupid cops and a cartoonishly nasty prick of a prosecutor (Linus Roache). Meanwhile, Diesel is saddled with shaky middle-age makeup and hair that could comfortably nest a family of terns. But somehow he transcends all these shortcomings, fake liver spots be damned. Vin mobs up nicely — working his innate vanity into a performance that's ultimately a bunch of big speeches, dirty jokes, folksy jury-baiting, surprisingly clever cross-examinations, and naïve, wounded dignity. Does it feel a little like shameless Oscar-bait? Perhaps. But Diesel also demonstrates a range that many xXx fans (and critics) might have considered beyond him. "I'm not a gangster, ladies and gentlemen," he tells the jury early on. But somewhere midway through the picture, he also ceases to be Vin Diesel, Strutting Movie Personality. Let's hope he stays fixed. Fox's DVD release of Find Me Guilty features a good anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. The sole extra is "A Conversation with Sidney Lumet," which includes nine topics and a "play all" option. Trailer, keep-case.
Mike Russell



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