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(2002) (Robert De Niro, James Franco) (R)

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Drama: A New York City detective discovers that his estranged, drug addicted son is a murder suspect.
Joey (JAMES FRANCO) is a drug addict who's trying to get by and get his latest fix while living in the mostly abandoned and decrepit but once thriving coastal town of Long Beach, Long Island. When a drug deal goes bad and a dealer named Picasso (JAY BORYEA) ends up dead, Joey finds himself the target of a drug lord, Spyder (WILLIAM FORSYTHE), who wants his revenge.

Vincent LaMarca (ROBERT DE NIRO) is a NYC detective who long ago left Long Beach. Still trying to shake his association with his father's notorious life and death, Vincent is partnered with Reg Duffy (GEORGE DZUNDZA) at work, and Michelle (FRANCES McDORMAND), his downstairs neighbor, at home.

When Vincent is assigned to investigate the murder of the drug dealer, little does he realize that it will bring him back into contact with Joey, his estranged son, ex-wife Maggie (PATTI LuPONE), or the mother, Gina (ELIZA DUSHKU), of the grandson he never knew existed. With time running out as other police and Spyder close in on Tony, Vincent does what he can to find, protect and reestablish contact with his long-lost son.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
With as many Americans being desirous of heading to the beach for weekend getaways or summer vacations, it's amazing that so many once thriving coastal towns and attractions have been mostly abandoned and/or fallen into disrepair.

At one time, places such as Coney Island, with its various amusement parks and other attractions, were once the mecca of various metropolitan areas such as New York City. Now, it's just a small shell of its former self, but that's better than many other such places that have all but been forgotten.

The decay and deterioration of such a place serves as the physical and symbolic backdrop of the crime drama, "City the Sea." Based on the 1997 Esquire magazine article, Mark of a Murderer, by journalist Mike McAlary, the film tells the tale of former and current residents and how their lives collide amidst the seaside squalor.

Representing one of the former residents who's moved on is Robert De Niro ("Showtime," "The Score") playing a cop whose son - played by James Franco ("Spider-Man," "Deuces Wild") - has remained in Long Beach and deteriorated just like his surroundings. Although that may give the impression that the film is oozing with too much symbolism, it thankfully doesn't come off as overbearing. What it does feel and look like, though, is an amalgamation of "old fashioned" cop dramas from the 1970s and before.

That not only means that it's a gritty, character-driven tale in an urban landscape, but unfortunately also that some melodramatic moments and contrived and convenient plot developments and character appearances are also present.

If that makes the film sound like a mixed bag, it's because it is. Working from screenwriter Ken Hixon's ("Inventing the Abbotts," "Morgan Stewart's Coming Home") adaptation of McAlary's article, director Michael Caton-Jones ("The Jackal," "Doc Hollywood") delivers some decently staged scenes. He also benefits from the presence of De Niro and the rest of his talented cast that, for the most part, deliver solid performances.

That is, until near the end of the film where the melodramatic material and acting begin to pile up so much that you'll wonder if all of it will eventually bury the production. Fortunately, it doesn't, but that and the overall blasť way in which the story is told ultimately steals a great deal of its thunder and interest.

That's despite an intriguing and potential-filled setup. Since the advertising materials and early scenes telegraph the film's "big" revelation, nothing's given away by stating that the suspect in question in the protagonist's latest murder case turns out to be his son. It's hard to tell if Caton-Jones intended that to be a surprise, but only the tardy or less than observant will miss figuring that out.

The additional messed up family dynamics - the cop's father turned out to have been an executed criminal who left him as an orphan, the past spousal abuse and abandonment, etc. - also offer some potential, but never really hit the emotional notes the way they should.

While all of that adds some context and depth to the proceedings and characters, the way in which some of that material and/or exposition is delivered feels too awkward and/or contrived. As a result, it comes off less like it's a seamless and congruous part of the story than that of a needed plot revelation.

As the protagonist, De Niro is generally good in the sort of role that's suited for him and that he could play in his sleep. Even so, and despite him making the film far more interesting to watch than if any number of other actors had played the part, the ending doesn't quit work for him or his acting abilities.

The terrific Frances McDormand ("The Man Who Wasn't There," "Fargo") plays his downstairs lover who wants something more out of their relationship. Although she doesn't get as much screen time as I would have liked to have seen - which is understandable since her character is not pivotal to the main plot - she's still good in the role and brings more to it than is written. George Dzundza ("Above Suspicion," "Instinct") and Anson Mount ("Crossroads," "Urban Legends: Final Cut") are decent as various cops working the case.

Franco is credible and quite good playing the troubled and addicted son, and Eliza Dushku ("The New Guy," "Bring It On") finally takes on a gritty, dramatic role and makes it believable. William Forsythe ("Blue Streak," "Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo"), on the other hand, is okay but not terribly memorable as the film's villain.

Overall, the film is interesting enough to be engaging for the sort of story it's trying to tell. Yet, it lacks any real form of sizzle and ultimately lets what could have been some powerful, concluding material be overwhelmed by too many crashing waves of melodrama. Okay, but nothing great, "City By the Sea" rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed August 9, 2002 / Posted September 6, 2002

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