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(2006) (Vin Diesel, Linus Roache) (R)

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Drama: A charismatic and street smart mafia figure decides to defend himself in a lengthy and high-profile federal case against him and other members of his mob family.
It's the late 1980s and low-level mobster Giacomo "Jackie Dee" DiNorscio (VIN DIESEL) has just been shot by his junkie cousin Tony Compagna (RAUL ESPARZA). Yet, rather than rat him out, Jackie wants to deal with him the mob way, but gets arrested and then sentenced to thirty years on an unrelated drug bust. Still afraid of reprisals from the extended mob family run by Nick Calabrese (ALEX ROCCO), Tony agrees to be a government witness for district attorney Sean Kierney (LINUS ROACHE) who wants to bring down the entire mob family.

That sets into motion a massive court case where Jackie, Nick and the rest of the mobsters are tried together for various mob crimes in front of presiding judge Sidney Finestein (RON SILVER). Upset that his current lawyer isn't any good, Jackie turns down an offer from lead defense attorney Ben Klandis (PETER DINKLAGE) and decides to represent himself in the case, despite having no legal background or real knowledge of how to proceed.

As the weeks turn into months, the court case evolves into a lengthy affair where Jackie -- who's divorced from ex-wife Bella (ANNABELLA SCIORRA) -- turns the courtroom into something of a three-ring circus, much to the collective dismay of Nick, Ben and especially judge Finestein who repeatedly threatens the charismatic mobster to be cautious about how he proceeds.

OUR TAKE: 4.5 out of 10
There are those who say, "They don't make 'em like they used to." That can mean anything from cars to kids, but -- you guessed it -- we're talking about movies. And not only does that refer to the quality of the films, but also the look and feel that often identifies a film with a certain era or filmmaking style.

If you're looking for the latter, you'll certainly find it with "Find Me Guilty." And having the legendary Sidney Lumet ("Network," "Dog Day Afternoon") behind the camera, you might be expecting the former. Unfortunately, this look at the longest mob trial in U.S. history feels like an artifact from the 1970s, and a somewhat rusty one at that.

All of which is too bad as there's scads of potential in this dramatic look at mobster Giacomo "Jackie Dee" DiNorscio and his decision to represent himself in the Newark Federal Courthouse from 1987 to 1988. Just as that character makes critical mistakes in his efforts (due to naiveté about the process), Lumet does the same (despite seemingly knowing better).

The first is deciding to use much of the actual court transcripts from the case (we're told this up front via an onscreen title) for the plot and ensuing dialogue penned by Lumet with fellow scribes T.J. Mancini & Robert McCrea. While it sounds like a nifty idea (or at least an intriguing marketing gimmick), one must remember that real world dialogue doesn't always make the most compelling material in a movie and that's certainly the case here.

It's certainly not the worst I've ever heard, but it lacks the sparkle often found in such films. Speaking of which, perhaps the biggest flaw would seem to be in Lumet casting Vin Diesel in the lead role. Having never seen a photo or footage of the real mobster, I have no idea if the filmmaker was going after a physical resemblance. Yet, beyond glimpses of potential in his early work ("Saving Private Ryan," "Boiler Room"), Diesel isn't usually high up on any top actor lists for such parts.

Sporting a rug up top on his usually clean dome, and donning a "wise guy" demeanor (he repeatedly states with a sly grin, "I'm no gangster, I'm a gagster"), Diesel isn't as bad as one might fear. That said, he does initially stick out like a sore thumb, and despite an inconsistent performance he does somewhat grow on you as the story progresses (purposefully or just coincidentally mirroring what presumably happened in real life).

The film opens with a figurative and literal bang. As Jackie's junkie cousin shoots him in bed, it seems like the sort of scene that usually begins an entire flashback sort of tale that rewinds to a point before eventually leading back to and slightly passing the film's starting point. That tired convention thankfully doesn't occur here, but that first sequence is the catalyst for all that follows.

Yet, considering the lengthy nature of the real case, the filmmakers can't avoid the resultant episodic nature (also denoted by onscreen titles that list what days we're witnessing). While everything obviously moves forward, the choppy nature impacts the momentum. But that isn't as bad as the odd mix of drama and comedy that just doesn't mesh as well as obviously intended.

The biggest offender -- beyond the comedy stylings of Diesel (see also "The Pacifier") -- is the design of the district attorney character played by Linus Roache. Starting somewhat realistically but then segueing into exasperated frustration, the performance turns so over the top that it not only clashes with the courtroom and familial drama (regarding Diesel's failed marriage to the character played by Annabella Sciorra), but also becomes rather annoying on its own.

As the presiding judge, Ron Silver also has his moments of exasperation, but they're thankfully kept mostly to a dramatic nature. Peter Dinklage also sticks with the drama, and is the best thing the film has to offer, making one think that perhaps the story should have focused more on him.

The oddest thing, though, is that the film looks and feels as if it had been made in the '70s (despite being set in the late '80s). While that stylistically ties it in with Lumet's works of that era, it pales in comparison. Clearly not in the same league as those works or HBO's "The Sopranos," and certainly not as funny as any number of mob-based comedies, "Find Me Guilty" tries to be a combination of both genres, but is guilty of lacking the supporting evidence to engage or make us care about its outcome or characters. It rates as a 4.5 out of 10.

Reviewed March 6, 2006 / Posted March 17, 2006

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