Sidney Lumet continues his remarkable six-decade run of New York-set dramas and Vin Diesel returns from the action-film gulag to give a shambling comic turn as the real-life mobster who hijacked a huge trial in the goombah comedy-drama “Find Me Guilty.” Emphasizing the comic aspects of tale will help pull thesp’s “Pacifier” fans, though dicey prosthetics and wig work may alienate those who prefer him buff ‘n’ bald. Verdict here for mid-March opening is moderate to good biz, with strong cultish ancillary possible.
In 1987-88, some 20 members of the Lucchese crime family, each with his own lawyer, were brought to trial on some 76 charges ranging from criminal conspiracy to narcotics trafficking. The jam-packed trial dragged on for 21 months, and the shocking verdict is the stuff of legal legend.
Earlier, after being pumped full of lead by his strung-out cousin Tony Compagna (Raul Esparza), Lucchese crime figure Giacomo “Jackie Dee” DiNorscio (Diesel) is jailed on charges based on the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act.
Thinking he can co-opt the mobster to roll over on his family during the massive proceedings, comically hard-charging prosecutor Sean Kierney (Linus Roache) offers a reduction in DiNorscio’s 30-year sentence in return for his testimony. Jackie Dee refuses.
As the trial gets under way, the mobster decides to represent himself, against the advice of by-the-book lead defense attorney Ben Klandis (Peter Dinklage). What follows are extended comic riffs to the jury by DiNorscio, apparently drawn from trial transcripts, that put him at odds both with long-suffering Judge Finestein (Ron Silver) and vicious crime boss co-defendant Nick Calabrese (Alex Rocco).
Part mob-trial thriller, part “dese ‘n’ dose” extended standup routine, character-rich pic plays like vintage Lumet, mining the grim comedy from life-and-death legal wranglings in the manner of “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Prince of the City” and “The Verdict.”
And if Diesel’s perf as a real-life wisecracking wise guy isn’t quite at the iconic level of Al Pacino, Treat Williams or Paul Newman, neither is it as determinedly one-dimensional as his action hero persona.
Genuinely committed to the mob family, DiNorscio is imbued by Diesel with genuine emotional ambivalence: Perhaps, as Calabrese thinks, he’s an opportunist looking to save his own skin. But maybe, as Jackie Dee keeps saying, family is everything.
Principal supporting cast is aces. Roache manages to make the cartoonish Kierney a legitimate force, and the straight-faced readings of Dinklage, Silver and crime film vet Rocco ground the pic in gravitas. Annabella Sciorra gives a master class on tough-gal posturing in her single memorable scene as DiNorscio’s tough-as-nails ex-wife. Huge supporting cast is stocked with primo New York theater talent, as well as faces familiar to anyone who watches crime shows on the tube.
Other than Diesel’s spotty makeup and dubious wig, tech credits are tops. Audaciously framed closeups from d.p. Ron Fortunato hark back to Lumet’s days in live television, while wider panning shots of production designer Christopher Nowak’s elegantly threadbare courtroom, jammed to the rafters with goodfellas, are funny in and of themselves. Jaunty score comprises extended riff on Louis Prima’s version of the 1928 chestnut “When You’re Smiling (the Whole World Smiles With You).”