The combination of prolific director Sidney Lumet and action star Vin Diesel might sound like a disaster waiting to happen, but together they have succeeded in delivering an unexpected surprise in "Find Me Guilty." Taking the true story of the longest criminal trial in American history, Lumet has fashioned an offbeat and refreshing twist on the courtroom drama, a genre he is certainly no stranger to (1957's "12 Angry Men," 1982's "The Verdict"). Diesel steps up in the sensational role of New Jersey gangster Jackie DiNorscio, one of twenty defendants collectively charged with seventy-six crimes, who makes the seemingly misguided decision to act as his own attorney with no prior legal experience. Released through Yari Film Group, "Find Me Guilty" makes its way to DVD courtesy of 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.
Jackie DiNorscio loves his family - to a fault. His family happens to be the Luccheses, the biggest crime family in New Jersey. Ever loyal, Jackie refuses to rat out his kin, even when one of them has nearly murdered him. After being sentenced to thirty years in prison for a drug bust, Jackie is given the opportunity to shorten that term if he testifies against his loved ones in court. Steadfast in his loyalty, he ends up being put on the stand with the rest of them, but he has a few tricks up his sleeves. Although warned that defending himself in court is not a smart move, especially for someone who never made it passed sixth grade, Jackie is adamant in his decision.
In a trial that ends up lasting 628 days, Jackie alternately thrills, annoys, offends, and shocks the jury and his family with his streetwise brand of humor and blissfully ignorant approach to cross-examination. From the very beginning, he lets his lighter side out, cheekily donning a fedora and proclaiming, "I'm not a gangster ladies and gentlemen; I'm a gagster!" His unorthodox behavior keeps both the prosecutors and the defense attorneys on their toes, as they never know how far he will go or whose case he will (inadvertently) endanger.
Keeping him in check are Ben Klandis (Peter Dinklage), the brightest of the defense attorneys, and the exasperated Judge Finestein (Ron Silver), a man who is at his wit's end with the courtroom shenanigans. Meanwhile, prosecutor Sean Kierney (Linus Roache) viciously mounts his own case, a difficult endeavor considering how noticeably fond the jury has become of Jackie's outrageous conduct. Even crime boss Nick Calabrese (Alex Rocco) begins to lose his cool, at one point threatening to cut Jackie's heart out if he jeopardizes his chance of winning.
What is most striking about "Find Me Guilty" is the ambiguity with which Lumet handles the morality of his characters. In the real world, there is nothing likeable about Jackie or his family. As Kierney heatedly points out late in the film, in addition to the drug and violence charges brought against them, they also "kill people from time to time." There is no reason why we should like them, and in fact, we don't. The only person we are interested in is Jackie, and we like him for the same reason that the jurors like him - because he makes us laugh. The prosecutors are, by story structure, the villains, though they do nothing that is particularly devious. All of their actions are standard legal procedure, so we don't even have the typical movie cliché of corrupt lawyers. We are touched by Jackie's loyalty to his family, but again, there is no explanation for this. They are not good to him, and he stands to gain absolutely nothing by defending them. So why does he do it?
Here is the secret to the movie's appeal. What on the surface seems like a regular court drama with a little humor thrown in for good measure actually works as a wicked satire on the American judicial system. It is obvious from the beginning that these men are guilty as charged, but the strategic chess game that the prosecution and defense play against each other turns a fairly simple conclusion into an ongoing competition to outwit the opponent. In his own naïve way, Jackie reveals the flaws and loopholes of the system that allow guilty men to go free and innocent ones to be punished. Whether or not Lumet had any of this in mind is debatable, but it certainly takes the movie to a deeper level.
One thing that is in clear evidence is that, in spite of his flippant reputation, Vin Diesel is a good actor. He has the charisma to carry the court scenes as well as the overall sincerity to make his character believable and sympathetic. Say what you will about his other films, but here he gives a thoroughly winning performance that could possibly segue into a much more respectable career path. With his beaming smile and shifty eyes, Diesel has charm and presence to spare, and this is by far his best role to date.
As for the movie's debut on DVD, 20th Century Fox has served up a crisp image in a 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. Detail is clear throughout, with excellent contrast and no edge enhancement. Colors are a bit muted, and at times the picture seems unusually dark, but this may be intentional. As the bulk of the film takes place in the court room, there is relatively low lighting, which may account for some of the dullness.
Sound is presented in a 5.1 English Dolby Surround track that is pleasing on all levels. Dialogue comes through clearly on the front channels, while Jonathan Tunick's jazz score blasts rapturously around all of the speakers, enveloping you in its blaring trumpets and cool piano. Devoid of background hiss, the audio does not disappoint.
Unfortunately, extras are rather scant. First up is a conversation with Sidney Lumet that astoundingly lasts under five minutes. You can either access it by chapter or play all of them. Viewers are better off playing all, as some of the chapters consist literally of one sentence. This is indeed a substandard feature, especially coming from such a great director. Considering some of the in-depth discussions Lumet has provided on DVDs for other directors' films (Akira Kurosawa's "Ran" in particular), I had much higher expectations for his own movie. A commentary track would have been in order, or at the very least, a much longer discussion of the real Jackie DiNorscio, whom Lumet communicated with during production. I learned next to nothing from this feature, except that Lumet found DiNorscio an interesting person and considers Vin Diesel a good actor.
The only other features are a theatrical trailer, three TV spots, and a DVD trailer for the 1992 comedy "My Cousin Vinny." I'm not really sure why this is included, except for its thematic similarities and the fact that Joe Pesci was originally considered for the lead in this film. All in all, this was a most unsatisfactory release for a movie that deserved much better.
"Find Me Guilty" is a sharp, multi-layered study of courtroom strategy and questionable morality with some witty observations thrown into the mix. Vin Diesel shines as a character who engages both the jury and the audience with his childlike irreverence and warped sense of goodness, winning us over in spite of our better judgment. It is a shame that 20th Century Fox could not offer more with this release, and for that reason I cannot give it my complete approval, but the movie alone is a treat that showcases a legendary director near the top of his game and an actor quite possibly at the peak of his career.