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David Mamet turns a stock police manhunt into a disturbing moral meditation in the accomplished thriller Homicide. Joe Mantegna stars as Bobby Gold, a homicide detective harboring secret ethnic insecurities. In the role of his partner Tim Sullivan, William H. Macy moved from obscurity to major support status; he'd soon become one of the more popular character actors of the late 1990s.
Mamet's signature stylized dialogue is in evidence in some scenes, with statements repeated and re-stressed to emphasize unspoken meanings behind the words. A distraught wealthy woman tells Bob repeatedly that "There was a man on the roof" opposite her apartment, each time insinuating new levels of accusation and contempt: Bob doesn't believe her, Bob thinks all Jews are imagining threats against them.
Homicide begins as a standard treatise on the politics of police work. When the F.B.I. saw easy headlines in the arrest of the cop-killing junkie Randolph (Ving Rhames), they pulled Bob Gold off the case. After the Feds shoot up the ghetto while letting Randolph escape, Gold's team is back on again. Gold must endure vicious anti-Semitic slurs from a black politician but is comfortable in his own competency: he knows Randolph's brother can be tapped to lure the killer into an arrest. Gold's partner Tim (Macy) provides solid backup, both professional and personal. All will work out fine.
But fate takes a hand when Gold stumbles into another killing in the ghetto. An elderly Jewish woman running a candy store has been shot in the back. Her rich and powerful relatives make a couple of phone calls, and Gold is reassigned from his hot pursuit of Randolph to baby-sit the woman's upset family. Bob is deeply intimidated by the Klein household, which evokes a warm, rich Jewish heritage he has never experienced. The detective's celebrated communication skills (he's often used as a hostage negotiator) do no good when he tries to minimize the tenants' assertion that people are shooting at them from the rooftop next door. Feeling humiliated because he doesn't speak Hebrew or Yiddish, Bob becomes determined to find the old lady's killer.
The problem is that Bob hasn't really dropped the Randolph case. His team expects him to ignore the Klein killing and concentrate on a rendezvous to trap the dangerous, high profile killer. Tim gives Bob a hard time for taking the Klein job seriously. But when the detective examines the murder of the candy store lady, he finds clues that promise to unravel a wider anti-Semitic conspiracy. Old lady Klein smuggled machine guns to Palestine during the armed struggle to create Israel. A cryptic note found on the rooftop opposite the Klein apartment leads Bob to a librarian (Steven Goldstein) at a Jewish studies library; his research uncovers a possible neo-Nazi connection. Perhaps the Klein family's claims of an anti-Jewish conspiracy have merit after all.
That's when Bob Gold encounters an armed group of militant Zionists, who ask him to put his ethnic loyalty to Israel ahead of his oath as a police officer. Bob suffers more verbal abuse when he refuses. But his desire to prove his worth to the group is so great that he willingly helps agent Chava (Natalia Nogulich) investigate a storefront hiding a nest of neo-Nazis. Gold's illegal act turns out to be a terrible mistake; even worse, it causes him to forget the other case just as the crucial rendezvous is coming down.
David Mamet is known for his unequivocal support of pro-Israel causes, yet his drama puts American Jews in a harsh critical light: they come off as elitist liars and ruthless conspirators that take merciless advantage of our hero, a good man. Bob Gold, a non-practicing Jew, is confronted by a score of disapproving Jews who consider him a traitor to his heritage. After finding out that Bob can't read Hebrew, a scholar in the library asks him "what he is". The implication is that Bob is Nothing. Bob feels the contempt from these educated, cultured Jews. He observes the librarian trying to conceal information about a secret Jewish group. A woman at the Klein house had refused to translate part of a conversation in Yiddish.
The Kleins and their friends are definitely withholding information, but Bob Gold forgets his instincts as a cop and decides that now is the time to act illegally in the name of Jewish partisanship. That's when his entire life essentially goes to hell.
The unflattering portrait of Jews is not a pleasant one, as it aligns to more sophisticated forms of anti-Semitic prejudice. The Kleins and their secret militia profess an absolute moral entitlement and express themselves with hostility and deception. The non-Jewish world is their despised enemy, including 'fake Jews' like Bob Gold. Tim Sullivan nails Bob's problem perfectly when he warns that becoming personally involved in the case is a slippery slope. Fatal consequences follow in short order.
David Mamet's screenplay drags in plenty of events to foreshadow Bob's eventual fall from grace. A madman who killed his own family offers to tell Bob "the secret nature of evil". Bob's holster is damaged, a fact that keeps coming back. A Jewish shoe repairman refuses to fix the holster for him, even when Bob asks politely. Bob is convinced that his difficulties stem from a feeling of inadequacy instilled by bullies at an early age. To compensate for being Jewish, he has pushed himself to take risks as a police officer. His loyalty to the ingrates in the police department suddenly seems misplaced. Will it be more meaningful to seek the approval of "his own people" through this militant Jewish faction?
Joe Mantegna does as much as any actor could to make Bob's difficult character transition believable, while William H. Macy gets the best lines in a highly sympathetic role. Natalia Nogulich is magnetic as a manipulative true believer and Mamet ornament Ricky Jay is surprisingly convincing as a tough-guy Zionist operative. Ving Rhames (Pulp Fiction) is the malevolent Randolph but Mary Jefferson makes an equal impression as his suspicious mother, who regrets putting her faith in Bob Gold. Homicide's focus on the identity crisis of an urban Jew relegates the black characters to the status of an underclass of killers and victims easily manipulated by the police. Bob Gold puts a wedge between Randolph and his mother to make his arrest; the solitary problem that doesn't trouble Bob is his final determination to kill Randolph at all costs. It's another uncomfortable aspect of a complex story -- that appears ultimately to be about inter-racial barbarity.
Criterion's DVD of Homicide is a flawless enhanced transfer of a moody picture. Cinematographer Roger Deakins distinguishes the film's many settings -- the police gymnasium used for a strategy meeting, the orderly library, the elegant Klein apartment. Alaric Jans' music is used sparingly to lend the proceedings a somber air.
The extras are understandably David Mamet- centric. The writer-director's close associates are exceptionally loyal, which makes the multi-interview docu into an uncritical testimonial. Joe Mantegna, J.J. Johnston, Jack Wallace, Ricky Jay and Steven Goldstein sing Mamet's praises. Mamet and William H. Macy contribute a casual commentary that will delight fans of the individualistic creative powerhouse. A full complement of TV spots is included along with a gag reel of outtakes and on-set cut-ups. Perhaps the significance of the cover illustration needs to be explained to me, but I don't associate the graphic treatment with anything in the movie. The disc producer is Abbey Lustgarten.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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