Monday, 22 November 2010

Q&A (1990)

Bad cop/good lawyer go head to head in a classic police corruption procedural from Sidney Lumet and David Mamet.

I can still recall the episode of Film '90 or Film '91 that I was watching when the review of Q&A came on. The clip they showed is about half way through the film, when young assistant District Attorney Timothy Hutton is attending a crime scene and dodgy, corrupt cop Nick Nolte starts a tirade about the sanctity of police officers. I remember thinking that I wanted to know/see more, so only ten years late.

Q&A is a great thriller with lots of touches of the standard corrupt cop film but with some really original bits too. I kept being reminded me of James Ellroy's LA Confidential as we never, ever get to know the baddie, just like Ellroy's ultimate evil character, Lt Dudley Smith (played by James Cromwell, also known as the farmer in Babe. Confused? You will be). This makes them even more badass as we don't ever see their weaknesses or vulnerability, whilst we are constantly empathising with the limitations of the good guys. The only downside to the film version of LA Confidential is that Curtis Hanson decided that Dudley Smith should get killed off (baaaaad idea), rather than continuing as an unkillable enemy that he does in Ellroy's books.

We're introduced to hard boiled New York Irish American cop Mike Brennan (Nick Nolte) in the opening scene, in which he coldly dispatches an unarmed Peurto Rican lowlife and then makes it look like justifiable homicide. From this highly charged beginning we are lead into a very murky world of corruption, double dealings and murder, ending not so happily and more than a little ambiguously for the good guy.

Nick Nolte's character, Mike Brennan is a nasty piece of work and we learn much of this through others. There is something powerful about hearing bad stories of someone alongside seeing just a sample of their crimes. We do see Nolte killing people, but we never see him at home, rarely alone. What we do hear is others' tales of his history, who he knows, what he knows about them and what they know about him.

The good guy, Timothy Hutton's lawyer, has his flaws. We learn how he had previously left his girlfriend after learning that her father was black. The casual racism of the white cops against black and Hispanic colleagues also further highlights that alongside quite sophisticated corruption, that the NYPD painted here is one made up of thuggish throwbacks.

So many scenes have really cracking dialogue (courtesy of Lumet, Edwin Torres, who wrote the original book and with some help from David Mamet), from the police interviews with local Italian and Peurto Rican gangsters to the lawyers bar scene.

Armand Assante gives a great performance as a Peurto Rican drug lord looking to get out (with Hutton's ex), go straight and live the good life back in the mother land. As we get to know him and actually how moral he is, the idea that good and bad is not black and white is reinforced.

I kept hoping that we would get the great coming together/shoot out/good triumphing over evil scene, but Q&A is not that kind of film. The '80s/Miami Vice feel and look to the film belies its grittiness and I was left a bit bereft that there was not a clean happy ending. Ultimately though, it kind of made me respect it much more.

The only sticking point about the whole things was the music. Some bad '80s AOR style tunes were included, where what was really needed was some highly dramatic orchestral scoring to underline the heavyweight nature of what you get as a viewer.

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