City by the Sea (2002) / Drama-Mystery

MPAA Rated: R for language, violence, and some drug use
Running Time: 108 min.

Cast: Robert De Niro, James Franco, Frances McDormand, Eliza Dushku, William Forsythe, Nestor Serrano
Director: Mi
chael Caton-Jones
Screenplay: Ken Hixon (based on the article, "Mark of a Murderer" by Mike McAlary)
Review published September 12, 2002

City by the Sea draws its inspiration from a 1997 Esquire magazine article by Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, Mike McAlary.   The article was entitled "Mark of a Murderer," and detailed the tale of a real-life cop who begins to realize that the primary suspect on the murder investigation he is on is his own son.  

Robert De Niro (Showtime, The Score) plays the role of the cop and father, Vincent LaMarca, a New York homicide detective who tries to make a good name for himself despite the fact that his own father had been executed for murder himself.  James Franco (Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2) plays Joey LaMarca, Vincent's estranged son, a junkie on the streets who resorts to stealing to get the money for his next fix.  One day while in a drugged haze, he is accosted by another man, and in the ensuing scuffle, Joey ends up killing him.  The man was unfortunately working for a bigger criminal fish, Spyder (Forsythe, Deuce Bigalow), who wants revenge on Joey so as not to give the appearance he can't protect his own.  Meanwhile, he is ratted out to the cops by his associate, and soon Joey is on the run from Spyder as well as his own father, who is on the investigation team. 

City by the Sea is a bit of a potboiler, set on very slow simmer.  In this age of shoot-em-up explode-a-thons, this kind of somber drama is a bit of a dinosaur, so if you are expecting big action, you're going to be disappointed.  It's main strength comes from the performances of the actors, who are all extremely good in their respective roles, with an especially impressive performance by James Franco. 

The situations are realistic for the most part, and one gets the sense that even director Michael Caton-Jones (Memphis Belle, Basic Instinct 2) thought the film drags too much, as there are a few attempts at action that break the rhythm of the film, providing the worst scenes.  Luckily, the great cinematography by Karl Walter Lindenlaub (Independence Day, Stargate) is so spot-on, that you're quickly immersed in the streets of New York's underbelly once again, and not some Hollywood fantasyland.

Again, City by the Sea is not for anyone who isn't ready for a slow, character-driven drama.  For those that are, there's some terrific performances and great locale work to recommend the film as a whole, with a story that is compelling if you're patient.  Keep the Vivarin handy, and you should be just fine.

Qwipster's rating:

2002 Vince Leo