Vin Diesel has talent. No, no, hear me out. You could see it in his earlier films, solid flicks like “Pitch Black” and “Boiler Room,” where his smart, affable intensity was put to good use. Even “XXX” spotlighted his abundant charisma and attitude. He showed promise.
Then he fell in with the wrong crowd and started making things like “The Chronicles of Riddick” and “The Pacifier,” and we feared all was lost. Leave it to veteran filmmaker Sidney Lumet — widely regarded as the consummate “actor’s director” — to get him back on track with the well-made and amply entertaining courtroom dramedy “Find Me Guilty.”
IMDB tells me Lumet has directed 17 Oscar-nominated performances, and while Diesel isn’t quite THAT good here, he’s certainly better than most people ever expected him to be. Nicely wigged and sporting a few extra pounds that make his round features even doughier, Diesel plays Jack DiNorscio, a New York mobster brought up on racketeering charges along with 19 other defendants in one massive trial. But while the other defendants — Jack’s friends and fellow gangsters, all of them — have slick lawyers in fancy suits, Jack chooses to represent himself. He’s already doing 30 years for other charges, and that was with a lawyer helping him. How much worse can he do on his own?
It’s based on the true story of what became the lengthiest mafia trial (22 months!) in U.S. history, and a title card at the beginning of the film says, “Most of the court dialogue is actual testimony.” That’s good to know, actually, because Jack is such a smart-aleck goombah, more interested in winning the jury’s confidence with jokes than facts, that he’d be unbelievable if he weren’t real.
Jack’s greatest goal is to be loved. He worked for the mob families, sure, but what he liked best about it wasn’t the money but the camaraderie. During the trial, he never denies actually doing the things he’s charged with (though he does try to undermine the credibility of some of his accusers). No, his main point when addressing former associates who have struck plea bargains in exchange for testimony against him seems to be: Why would you say these things about me when I love you? He can’t fathom such disloyalty. It genuinely hurts his feelings.
This image of the lovable, friendly, kinder-and-gentler mob goon has been established by Tony Soprano and, maybe, the “Analyze This” movies. But good ol’ Vin, with a nasally Jersey accent that sounds perpetually congested, does enough with the prototype to make it seem less derivative and more original.
Another one of Lumet’s strengths is filming in cramped quarters without making the film feel claustrophobic. This is his third court film, after “Twelve Angry Men” and “The Verdict” (both of which earned him Best Director nominations), and it’s amazing how the overcrowded courtroom — crammed with 20 defendants, their lawyers, the prosecution, 12 jurors and eight alternates, not to mention the spectators — can be shot from so many different angles as to make it seem expansive and comfortable. It’s our world for two hours, and it’s an agreeable place to be.
B (2 hrs., 5 min.; )