Remember around the time you first heard about Vin Diesel, you would read all this shit about how he wasn’t just some dumb musclehead, he was a multi-talented enigma, he directed a short that caught Steve Spielberg’s eye, blah blah blah? But then he just did a bunch of action and action-like movies, many of them not very good, turned down the sequels, never got his HANNIBAL movie off the ground, then eventually had to stoop to the Hulk-Hogan-in-MR.-NANNY route to get a hit, and everybody wrote him off?
Well, I think he might get things rolling again, but we’ll see. And even if he doesn’t, it turns out he’s got one role under his belt that fits that “more than meets the eye” hype and shows that he’s got more range than just the differences between Riddick and Dominic Teretto (hint: Riddick wears goggles).
Directed by Sidney Lumet, FIND ME GUILTY is a true story about a New Jersey mobster who got pissed at his lawyer and decided to represent himself in a RICO Act case so huge it had something like 20 defendants and ended up being the longest criminal trial in U.S. history.
Diesel plays Jackie D’Norscio, who we first meet laying in bed getting shot by his own cousin. He refuses to cooperate with police because of a family values version of the “stop snitchin'” ethos. He says, “We don’t rat out those who love us” and insists his cousin is just a junkie who’ll see the error of his ways. This philosophy of love and forgiveness will drive him for the entire movie. Also it will screw him over since his fuckin cousin is the star witness in the case against him.
In this one Diesel has hair, with a receding hairline. The poster informs us that his nickname is “Fat Jackie,” but in the movie I wouldn’t exactly call him fat. Diesel hides his muscles under thick clothes, but it doesn’t really look like he did the RAGING BULL/donut-eating thing. He definitely looks different, though. With his distinct, gravelly voice I thought it might be hard to accept Diesel as this guy, but it wasn’t.
Jackie is tough but vulnerable. Always seeking acceptance whether it’s from “the fellas,” the screws at the prison, the lawyers or the jury. He never made it out of elementary school, so he doesn’t have Diesel’s usual thing of outsmarting everybody around him. He’s kind of whiny. He likes to tell jokes and laugh. He says things like “youse guys.”
The head defense lawyer is Peter Dinklage, who is wary of Jackie defending himself because it could screw over all of the defendants. But instead of trying to stop him (like the Don… er, I mean alleged Don… wants him to) he tries to help him. Dinklage is pretty much the co-lead, and of course he’s good in it. Nice to see him get an opportunity like that.
The judge is Ron Silver. That sounds like the ultimate nightmare for a defendant, but somehow Silver removed his usual layer of slime and plays this as a really likable character. He almost develops a friendship with Jackie over the course of the trial. There’s a touching scene where he has to inform Jackie about a death in the family and he really struggles to be gentle and supportive about it. I don’t think this guy’s a hanging judge. He’s a hanging out judge.
One of the big moments in the movie is when Jackie’s ex-wife (Annabella Sciorra) comes to visit him. She yells at him for treating her bad, cheating on her, thinking he can have whatever he wants no matter the consequences, and now for throwing his freedom away in the name of a stupid mafia code. Jackie doesn’t argue back that much because he probly knows she’s right. It’s one of the few times when he seems to feel bad about what he does.
They say that most of the testimony is taken directly from the transcripts, but of course I don’t know which parts. Does “most” mean it’s all real except sometimes the actors would improvise a little or the testimony would be simplified a little, or does it mean there is a 51% majority of it that is not made-up bullshit? I got no idea.
Jackie doesn’t come up with a brilliant legal strategy or anything. He mostly jokes around with corny humor. He keeps saying “I’m not a gangster, I’m a gag-ster.” You see, it’s all a big misunderstanding. Yes, he may have been arrested making a large drug transaction, but really it turns out his only crime is that he loves to make people laugh.
In court he tells dirty jokes. He keeps getting threatened with fines. One of his attempted Matlock moves is just to embarrass a police witness (Anthony Michael Hall) by proving that his statement that he saw a bunch of Italian men somewhere couldn’t be backed up because he couldn’t really know what nationality they were just by looking at them. Of course it puts the cop on the spot for what he said but it also doesn’t make his testimony any less reliable since it’s not really relevant if they’re Italian or not. So it’s kind of this game of spending months and months in a court room distracting people by talking about dumb meaningless bullshit. It’s like a presidential election.
In the end (SPOILER for movie and history) they’re all found not guilty. And the weird thing – or maybe the ingeniously subversive thing, I’m not sure – is that the movie plays it exactly like it’s ERIN BROCKOVICH or something, some David beats Goliath, stick-it-to-the-man crowdpleaser. You’re happy for his underdog victory over the uptight federal prosecutor (Linus Roache). But wait a minute – that asshole is right though! These guys are murderers, drug pushers and extortionists. It seems like the jury let them off because hey, this guy’s funny, I like this guy and because these guys have wives and kids, they can’t go to jail! And the movie, using standard movie devices, tricks us into feeling the same way.
Look at Dinklage’s character. It makes you like him. He’s this wise, eloquent legal mastermind. People tell him to stop Jackie from representing himself, but he has a hunch. He gives Jackie a chance and grows to believe in him. And at the end of the trial he thanks Jackie profusely, a huge compliment. This character is our buddy and our mentor.
But think about it – he’s a fucking scumbag! He knows these guys are guilty as sin and he gets them off with a bunch of bullshit. There’s no hint of “everyone deserves a fair trial” idealism. He’s just a mob lawyer, straight up. He’s Sean Penn in CARLITO’S WAY, but played as a hero.
So if you take the movie at face value it’s blatantly glorifying organized crime and saying that if somebody is charismatic it doesn’t matter if they’re a murderer. It has no obvious “this is fucked up” notes like, say, CHOPPER or BRONSON. So I really can’t tell if Lumet just thought it was a good enough story that he sided with Jackie, and that even bad guys can be sympathized with, or if he’s deliberately trying to fuck with the audience by manipulating us into feeling something that we shouldn’t.
But either way we’re all adults here, we can handle it. This is an entertaining movie that I recommend to all Dieselmaniacs and Dink Finks.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.