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CITY BY THE SEA(director: Michael Caton-Jones; screenwriters: Ken Hixon/from an article “Mark of a Murderer” by Mike McAlary; cinematographer: Karl Walter Lindenlaub; editor: Jim Clark; music: John Murphy; cast: Robert De Niro (Vincent LaMarca), John Doman (Captain Henderson), Frances McDormand (Michelle), James Franco (Joey LaMarca), Eliza Dushku (Gina), Patti LuPone (Maggie), William Forsythe (Spyder), George Dzundza (Reg Duffy), Anson Mount (Dave Simon), Brian Tarantina (Snake), Jay Boryea (Picasso), Drena De Niro (Vanessa Hansen); Runtime: 108; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Michael Caton-Jones/Brad Grey/Elie Samaha/Matthew Baer; Warner Bros./Franchise Pictures; 2002)
“It all seemed wasted like De Niro’s once promising career and the once grand Long Beach boardwalk.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

What has happened to Robert De Niro’s career? He’s in another routine cop flick, where he once again plays a detective. This ordinary type of role seems to be the only kind he’s been in recently, and what’s worst he brings nothing to his role to make this a better film. It is hard to list him anymore as one of the great actors without wincing, as there’s been one too many mediocre flicks such as this one for him to live down.

Scottish director Michael Caton-Jones’s gloomy film seemed so pat, as if it could be a regular cop show on network TV. The story never connected with any emotional impact.

The film is set in a town located 30 minutes from Manhattan. The title “City by the Sea” refers to Long Beach, Long Island (But actually it was shot in Asbury Park, N.J.), a town that once featured a prominent boardwalk and was considered upscale, but has in recent times become a dump filled with abandoned buildings. The twist in this cop tale is that it presents an Oedipal drama between a NYC homicide detective, Lieutenant Vincent LaMarca (De Niro), and his estranged junkie 21-year-old son Joey (Vincent LaMarca). The other twist is that Vincent’s father Angelo was executed because he was a baby-killer during a kidnapping for ransom that went wrong, and now the same criminal fate may be in store for Joey. This heavy-handed scenario builds around Joey killing in self-defense a drug dealer named Picasso, as he went with his sleazy pal Snake to score drugs. Picasso’s drug-lord boss, Spyder (Forsythe), then comes after Joey and aims to avenge his underling’s death. Spyder is a cartoon-like character who when he isn’t sneering is cruising around in a motorcycle with a shotgun under his jacket.

Knowing that Spyder is after him and Snake betrayed him when he gave himself up to the police, this brings the frightened Joey around to see his bitter divorced mom Maggie (LuPone). But she doesn’t know how to help him. Joey then visits Gina (Dushku), the mother of his 18-month-old toddler Angelo, who got off drugs and works in a fast-food place. She won’t get back with him unless he gets off drugs, and she doesn’t have the money to help him to escape to Key West, Florida. Joey lives in an abandoned casino under the boardwalk, and that’s where Spyder goes to kill him. But Joey was out, and Spyder mistakenly kills a cop, Reg Duffy (Dzundza), thinking he was Joey. Reg is the longtime overweight and cuddly partner of Vincent’s, and is one of only a few friends he has.

Vincent’s other major relationship is with Michelle (McDormand), who lives in the same walk-up building in apartment 3A and with whom he occasionally shares a bed. Nothing much happens with that relationship, except Vincent fills in details for the viewer to know about his past while Michelle’s function is to look astonished. He moved to the city 14 years ago after the divorce and has not had contact with his son since, even missing out on his son’s successful high school football career–before drugs ruined his life. Vincent is a workaholic and has dedicated himself to becoming a perfect cop to make up for his shameful family history. But the murder investigation of his son brings back all the painful memories and ghosts from the past, and it draws him back to Long Beach to see if he can get another chance to help the son he abandoned.

There was nothing special about this routine cop flick. It pulled all the right strings to touch one’s heart, but the story was contrived and flatly acted and the overall effect was too sentimental to register as a drama. The dialogue presented from Ken Hixon’s script was stilted and preachy and the acting was forced. The plot might seem touching, but the filmmaker never made it come to life. It all seemed wasted like De Niro’s once promising career and the once grand Long Beach boardwalk.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”