In the 1980’s Giacomo “Jackie D” DiNorscio (Vin Diesel) was a loyal soldier in the Lucchese crime family operating in New Jersey but, when he is busted in a drug sting operation, he is given two choices by the Feds: make a deal and rat out his bosses or spend the next 30 years behind bars. He keeps his mouth shut. 20 members of the mob clan are then indicted, including Jackie, for 76 counts of crimes ranging from extortion and conspiracy to narcotics trafficking. The 21-month trial takes on a carnival atmosphere when DiNorscio announces to the court that he will defend himself in “Find Me Guilty.”
Director emeritus Sidney Lumet got his start in movies with the classic courtroom (well, jury room) drama, 12 Angry Men (1957).” He went back to court in 1982 with the Oscar-nominated “The Verdict,” so we know he knows his way around the bar. This, combined with a solid performance by Diesel (who reminds us that, once upon a time, he played characters rather than caricatures), make “Find Me Guilty” a thoughtful, and sometimes funny, true life story of loyalty and love of family – even if that family consists of killers, mobsters and other nefarious characters.
The film chronicles the real-life indictments and the lengthy and arduous mob trial they led to. Of the 20 defendants all but one is paired with a lawyer. Jackie, who is facing 30 years - and that was with his lawyer’s help – declares his intent to defend himself. With misgivings, Judge Finestein (Ron Silver) allows the defense and the games begin. A steady stream of prosecution witnesses testify against the defendants which includes high-ranking crime boss, Nick Calabrese (Alex Rocco), and a host of other Lucchese family higher-ups. All the time, for the 21 months of the trial, Jackie keeps testing how far he can go with the judge while doing his darnedest to win over the jury – I’m not a gangster, I’m a gagster!” he declares to them more than once.
Vin Diesel, finally, after so many action hero roles, is given a challenge in the character of Jackie DiNorscio. Not since “The Boiler Room (2000)” has the actor been given a realistic character to play. He’s a little creaky, like he’s trying to break in, again, an old suit, but blends with Jackie D and, by the end, owns the role. Diesel should take on more jobs where he isn’t just an action figure.
Supporting cast is richly populated but, with so many players in this near-epic story, few are given the chance to show much individual presence. Rocco, as Jackie’s disapproving don, exudes venom toward Jackie through distrust and dislike. The rest are unrecognized but all give good wise-guy face to each. Peter Dinklage, as defense attorney, Ben Klandis, who helps Jackie through the legal minefields he keeps walking into, gives a fine, wise and dignified performance.
Techs are straightforward and of good quality.
The script, by Lumet, T.J. Mancini and Robert McCrea, is uneven as it combines dialogue from the real court transcripts with fictionalized interludes. The film shifts, noticeably from one to the other, interrupting the pace. The rich cast helps to mask these changes in tempo.
Find Me Guilty” isn’t great courtroom drama but there is a good-natured feeling – funny, considering it’s about gangsters getting off for their crimes – that has you rooting for Jackie, if no one else. It’s nice to see Sidney Lumet still crafting quality films. I give it a B-.Laura:
When New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani initiated his crime crackdown, one U.S. Defense Attorney, Sean Kierney (Linus Roache, "Priest," "Batman Begins"), became obsessed with bringing down the New Jersey Lucchese mob. But one rather offbeat, already incarcerated defendant, Giacomo “Jackie Dee” DiNorscio (Vin Diesel, "The Pacifier"), becomes a surprising opponent when he remains completely loyal to his family, decides to act as his own attorney and tells the jury that he's a 'gagster' not a 'gangster' in "Find Me Guilty."
Director Sidney Lumet ("12 Angry Men," "The Verdict"), the maestro of American courtroom dramas, takes on an offbeat intermingling of the mob comedy stylings of Jackie Dee and the more serious aspects of the longest criminal trial in U.S. history and his results are as mixed as his elements. "Find Me Guilty" is centered by the endearingly off the wall performance of a rejuvenated Vin Diesel, but in focusing on a lovable clown, Lumet merely skims the surface of the seventy-six dark deeds that brought twenty mobsters to trial. This is a misguided, albeit entertaining, bit of hero worship that nevertheless works as a well-acted character study.
We're introduced to Jackie as he attempts to reason with his cousin, Tony Compagna (Broadway musical star Raúl Esparza), who shoots him four times in his bedroom. Jackie's warm and fuzzy feelings for family are immediately brought to the forefront as he professes to still love his cousin, dismissing his act as the result of drug use. Jackie is then set up to take a fall on a drug deal, his thirty year sentence to be used by Sean Kierney as a bargaining chip against the Luccheses. But Jackie refuses to take the bait, angered by the idea that he would ever consider ratting out his friends.
Once the trial starts, we're left to wonder if Jackie is perhaps demented. Lucchese head Nick Calabrese (Alex Rocco, "The Godfather") clearly has nothing but contempt for his loyal soldier, but Jackie's outrageous, naive and strangely successful behavior in court wins him a surprised fan in Calabrese's slick defense attorney Ben Klandis (Peter Dinklage, "The Station Agent," "Elf"). Even Judge Finestein (Ron Silver, "Reversal of Fortune," "Ali"), who cautions Jackie constantly in the trial's early goings, shows a soft spot for the guy in his kind and considerate treatment of the man when word comes that Jackie's mother has passed away. After two years, when the amazing verdict is delivered, it appears that the personality of one man has been of far greater importance than any testimony.
Considering Lumet's predominance in the courtroom genre it is surprising just how little a feel we get for the actual facts of the case. Jackie admits to dealing cocaine and there's some talk of black market goods, yet the only references to actual violence are in Jackie's own shooting and Kierney's spitting rant on the jury's acceptance of the antics of 'murderers.' Jackie's shooting, too, is too little explored, as the motive, a hit by the Bruno family for Jackie's defection to the Luccheses, completely negates his core virtue - that of loyalty to a family.
And yet Lumet does get a good bead on the circus-like environment of the trial, where twenty defendants crowd half the courtroom, one even bed-ridden. The dingy yellowish look of the film works in its favor, giving it the dingy patina of 1970s celluloid. Lumet's work with Diesel is inspired - the actor manages to disappear even with his less than convincing wig and beefy bulk. Diesel takes risks, but his lovable goofball never gets away from him, his innate charm springing from an honest place. Watch how easily he wins over his ex-wife Bella (an impressive Annabella Sciorra, HBO's "The Sopranos") despite herself. It's easily his best performance.
Diesel also receives enviable support from Dinklage, whose cool intelligence and unruffled demeanor don't dismiss the bit of playfulness the actor seems to radiate from the corners of his mouth. The diminutive man throws forth a great stature as he mounts a three-stepped podium like a ship's captain taking the prow. And Dinklage has his support too, in the prissy assistant that pilots that podium around, making them the most offbeat defense team once could conceive of for a mob boss, to say the least. Silver always projects control of his court and the rational ability to consider every angle. Roache turns the prosecutor's passion into an obsessive vengeance, which makes him the piece's bad guy in keeping with the film's skewed worldview.
"Find Me Guilty" is a real odd duck, just like the man at its center. It's at odds with itself but is always watchable, sometimes compellingly so.
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