Reeling Backward: Find Me Guilty (2006)
For those watching the latest "Fast Saga" rockheaded extravaganza and thinking Vin Diesel can't act, here's a look back at a drama he did with Sidney Lumet that proves he's got another gear.
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"I'm not a gangster. I'm a gagster." — Jackie DiNorscio
What will Vin Diesel do once his film career is done living its life a quarter mile at a time? Hopefully go back to more character-driven material like the 2006 courtroom dramedy "Find Me Guilty."
At my day job at public radio (I know, I know...) during our pledge drives (Yeah, yeah...), one of our pitches for your financial support is that if every single person listening to the radio (or watching the telly) pledges just $5 right then and there, our pledge drive would be over. If anyone who has watched just one of the "The Fast and Furious" films would watch "Find Me Guilty," well, it would have made more money than its 2006 theatrical run.
Plus, you could see that Diesel is capable of much, much more. His non-franchise action films have been, well..."Bloodshot," "The Last Witch Hunter" and "Babylon A.D."
"Find Me Guilty" is my favorite Vin Diesel performance. Ahead of "The Iron Giant" and Groot. Don't worry, "Furious" fans. Jackie DiNorscio does say the word "family" in "Find Me Guilty" as much as Dominic Toretto. The "family," "I love them," "they love me" drinking game in this film is strong.
"FMG" is based on the longest Mafia trial in American history with actual court testimony used in the screenplay (credited to director Sidney Lumet and T.J. Mancini & Robert J. McCrea, more on Lumet later).
Twenty men are up on racketeering charges, including DiNorscio. They all have lawyers, except Jackie who fired his lawyer and will represent himself. Against the wishes of everyone, including fellow defense lawyer Ben Klandis (Peter Dinkledge), The Honorable Judge Ron Silver (playing the best judicial straight-man since Fred Gwynne in "My Cousin Vinny") and the head of the business organization Nick Calabrese (a chilling Alex Rocco).
Jackie is a wise-ass who thinks his lack of knowledge of the law will be used to his advantage. He jokes that since he has spent half of his life in jail, maybe he has too much knowledge of the law. His humor (when not reprimanded by the judge), speaking from the heart and using non-lawyer words or tactics turns the jury into his stand-up audience. A laughing jury is never a hanging jury.
As the trial goes on, Jackie gains a rapport with Klandis, who become the Jiminy Crickett to Jackie's wise-ass Pinocchio. Klandis reminds Jackie that all the defendants are connected. If Jackie sneezes, everyone gets a cold.
This is the most loose Diesel has ever been on camera. Audiences are so used to the muscular slab either still and stoic or in gravity-and-logic defying action. Even in the cartoonish "The Pacificer," where his slabness is used for humor, he's still a bulk.
With a amusing hair-piece, his dependence on a reclining chair as a bed (he has a bad back), baggy suits and surrounded by seasoned actors, Diesel is able to give us something way more than a "fuggedaboutit" stereotype performance. He also doesn't go into late era-Pacinoland; that distinction goes to English actor Linus Roach (working on his American accent that would be put to good use soon after on "Law & Order") as Prosecuting Attorney Sean Kierney, who damn near salivates at the idea of putting all 20 defendants away and securing his career.
Jackie confronts witnesses about Italian stereotypes and the ethics of an undercover FBI agent giving alcohol to Jackie's alcoholic brother. This includes his own cousin (Raul Esperaza), who unsuccessfully tried to kill Jackie and turned state's witness, and his long-suffering wife Bella (Annabella Sciorra makes it count in her lone scene), bringing new meaning to the term conjugal visit.
There's only a few flashes of temper from Jackie, just enough to know how ruthless he could be in free society. While he can be crass and sometimes gets in trouble with the judge, he's able to get his point across without the use of lawyer talk. Without giving away too much, Jackie does have an "Iron Giant" like finale.
Diesel gives such a strong performance because of the direction of Sidney Lumet, one of my favorites. In an era of certain filmmakers just rolling the camera, let the actors do what they do and whittle the best parts into something, Lumet was an actor's director. Even his misfires were fascinating, but he always got strong performances out of his cast. He started out in the Yiddish theater and eventually directing Off-Broadway and then to live television before feature films.
Like Martin Scorsese (another favorite) and organized crime, Lumet has made several courtroom dramas, all fascinating in their own way. He has one of the all-time great feature film debuts with "12 Angry Men" (1957). Always called "an actor's director" because he had it in his contract that he cast could rehearse for two weeks before shooting, which the actors loved. Lumet was also famous for finishing his films on time or early and on/under budget, which the studios loved.
"Serpico," "Network," "Dog Day Afternoon," "Prince of the City"... just go to his IMDB page and add his films to your watch list.
His other courtroom dramas were "The Verdict" (1982, with Paul Newman's best performance), "Guilty As Sin" (1993, a fun-bad, pizza and beer film), "Night Falls of Manhattan" (1996, a much-needed follow-up to "Guilty As Sin") and this, his second to last film. Lumet's cinematic swan song was the 2007 "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead." Strong start, strong finish.
Yes, those "Furious" films made Vin Diesel a huge movie star. "Find Me Guilty" proved he could act, too.
Matthew Socey is host of the Film Soceyology podcast for wfyi.org.