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Review: Powerful acting brings shine to 'Sea'

De Niro, McDormand, Franco all excellent

By Paul Clinton
CNN Reviewer


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(CNN) -- Are the sins of the father visited upon the son? That's one of the central questions of "City by the Sea," and in a truly magnificent performance, Robert De Niro sets out to answer it.

De Niro plays New York City Detective Vincent LaMarca, whose father was executed for murder when Vincent was only eight years old. Young Vincent is then mentored by the same New York detective who arrested his father, and eventually Vincent follows him into the police department.

But the shadow of his father's crime never completely leaves LaMarca. Later, he marries Maggie (Patti LuPone) and settles down in Long Beach, Long Island, but their union ends in a burst of marital violence. Vincent can see his son, Joey (James Franco, TNT's "James Dean"), only during court-ordered supervised visits. Racked by guilt, he eventually deserts his son, just as he himself was deserted, and starts a new life in Manhattan.

Fourteen years later, he's settled into a quiet routine with few attachments, other than a casual affair with his neighbor Michelle (played by Frances McDormand). LaMarca and his partner, Reginald Duffy (played by George Dzundza, best known for his role as Detective Max Greevey during the first year of the TV series "Law & Order"), are investigating the murder of a drug dealer whose body has washed up on a rocky Brooklyn beach. The investigation leads them to Long Beach, and the broken world that Vincent thought he had left behind.

Gradually a suspect emerges: some low-life junkie named Joey. It's just a routine case -- until Joey's last name is revealed to be LaMarca. Vincent is taken off the case due to a conflict of interest, and Reggie promises him that he'll bring Joey back in, safe and sound.

Damaged relationships

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But the long arm of the law is not Joey's only concern. Spyder (William Forsythe), a drug lord who controlled the dead dealer, is also reaching out and looking for revenge. He wants to kill Joey in order to set an example.

Now the plot becomes a race between Reggie and Spyder to find Joey and offer him either redemption or death.

When Reggie shows up at Joey's hideout, an empty building on the deserted Long Beach boardwalk, Spyder -- who has arrived first -- becomes trapped and kills Reggie with a gun he finds among Joey's belongings. The police now think Joey is a cop killer, and Vincent is forced to decide whether he should be a detective or a father when Joey calls him for the first time in years and swears "I didn't shoot that cop. Did you hear me? I didn't shoot him."

Director Michael Caton-Jones has given this film a stark sense of realism, with the rundown, neglected landscape of Asbury Park, New Jersey (standing in for Long Beach), serving as a metaphor for the damaged relationship between father and son.

That realism also works well when you consider that this movie is loosely based on a true story, which was the source material for an article in Esquire magazine by Mike McAlary. However, screenwriter Ken Hixon has whitewashed many of the facts (Joey was actually a vicious killer), and rearranged many of the relationships in the name of creative license.

Triumphant work

De Niro reportedly hand-picked Franco for the role of Joey. (Franco also plays Tobey Maguire's best friend in "Spider-Man.") There is no doubt that he is a gifted young actor with a bright future. While this part doesn't give Franco much of a character arc, it's obvious that he's got the chops. He takes a "made-for-TV-movie" type of role and infuses it with a depth and feeling that wasn't on the page.

McDormand also brings more to the party than just a good performance. Her air of dignity and sheer common sense nail De Niro's character to the ground and provide a moral center to the film. These two are a joy to watch as they spin illusion into reality before your eyes.

Without De Niro and McDormand, "City By The Sea" could have easily been just another cheesy cop drama. With them, it's a moving story about fathers and sons, and how it's never too late to change your life.

"City By The Sea" opens nationwide on Friday, September 6 and is rated R.


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