David Mamet's "Homicide" is a detective thriller that's finally about the death -- in spirit if not in body -- of its hero.
Homicide detective Bobby Gold's a terrific cop, but a lousy Jew. He's always the first cop through the door -- he's willing to die for his partners -- and he's so savvy that he's always the one selected to negotiate with the crazed, the dispossessed and the dangerous.
But what makes Bobby such a great negotiator is that, down deep, he feels like an outsider himself. When a slick black apparatchik from the mayor's office calls Bobby a "kike" -- this movie is very good at exploiting urban ethnic tensions -- Bobby doesn't react. But, in fact, he's been overcompensating for being a Jew all his life. Although Bobby's so assimilated that he can't tell the difference between Yiddish and Hebrew, he still doesn't feel as if he belongs; that's why he's the first through the door -- he's seeking acceptance.
He and his partners are on the trail of a drug dealer whose escapes from the law have made him a hero to other blacks. The mayor, who's up for re-election (the film was made in Baltimore but the location could be any city with a large black population) wants him taken alive. But Bobby also gets inadvertently involved in the investigation of the murder of an elderly Jewish woman who owned a candy store in the slums. He's caught in cross-fire between politically powerful interest groups, both of which want him on their individual cases.
If John Sayles' recent "City of Hope" was about the social consequences of the tribalism rampant in our cities, "Homicide" is about its psychological cost. At first, Bobby thinks the murdered woman's family are just a bunch of paranoid nuts -- they're convinced that the crime is the work of neo-Nazi terrorists. Bobby thinks it was a bungled robbery by thugs ignorant enough to believe stories that the woman hid a treasure in her basement.
The question of good and evil is tied up in two competing paranoias: that which induces impoverished urban kids to believe that a helpless old Jewish woman hides millions in her basement or that which persuades a Jewish cop to believe a Nazi plot is behind a misunderstood word. Bobby's emerging identity as a Jew destroys the identity as a cop he has so carefully created. Because he's caught between two camps, he becomes undone as a man.
In almost all respects, this is a terrific movie. Mamet's dialogue is extraordinary -- he says more in six words than other screenwriters do in six pages -- and his work with the camera is his best yet. A scene in which Bobby subdues a vicious Rottweiler with nothing more than a ham and Swiss on rye will make you sweat more than all the scenes in all the other thrillers of the last three months.
And Joe Mantegna is brilliant as Bobby. He calibrates facial expressions with surgical precision. The comparison between his cool reaction to being called a kike early in the film and the way in which he registers hurt when a well-intentioned black cop make a casually anti-Semitic remark later is a primer on how a great actor develops a character.
But "Homicide" has one important flaw -- like a crack in an otherwise perfect gem: It's difficult to believe, even in a performance as fine as Mantegna's, that so competent a cop as Bobby could sink so quickly into a morass of paranoia that he'd fail those who depend on him.
Starring Joe Mantegna.
Directed by David Mamet.