By Marc S. Sanders
Sidney Lumet is a favorite director of mine. Maybe it’s because I simply get caught up in good crime dramas and legal thrillers, like Dog Day Afternoon, 12 Angry Men, and The Verdict. Maybe it’s because I appreciate the genuineness of Lumet’s technique. The man’s career seems to follow a documentarian theme throughout New York City’s boroughs, politics, courtrooms and especially the various precincts of its police force. Corruption is the angle that Lumet looks for, and Q & A from 1990 is another such example.
The title refers to the routine transcript that a district attorney will ask a witness following an incident. So, after the first two minutes of the picture have concluded with New York cop Mike Brennan (Nick Nolte) shooting a Hispanic at point blank range, execution style, outside a seedy nightclub, a fresh-faced D.A. named Al Reilly (Timothy Hutton) is recruited in the middle of the night to collect Mike’s statement on the incident and wrap it up quickly, as his supervisor Kevin Quinn (Patrick O’Neal) strongly urges.
Mike is a celebrated cop with tall tales to share of how he strong arms suspects. Everyone seems to like his relaxed way of tossing around racist vulgarities in his anecdotes. No demographic is left out with how he speaks. In fact, the name calling is shared among the whole precinct in a very casual way. The two detectives assigned to the shooting that Mike was involved in, Sam “Chappie” Chapman and Luis Valentin (Charles S Dutton, Luis Guzman), seem to take it in stride as well. They guffaw with the rest of the crowd when Mike describes how he roughs up street hoods who don’t cooperate.
Al was once a cop as well, and his father before him was a “hero cop” to the boys in blue too. He’s more than willing to let this incident go the quick routine, but then he soon realizes how corrupt Mike is and how much of a stronghold he has on the precinct and the various walks of life within the city from the Italian mob, to the Hispanic drug runners, to the transvestite hookers and the Jewish lawyers. They all fall under his thumb. Nolte’s stature and bombastic voice tell you that Mike carries a large thumb no matter how blatant his crookedness may appear.
“Chappie” may be regarded by Mike as the “whitest n—er” he knows, but he’d never even think of turning his colleague in. That’ll be the day he quits. He proudly announces he’s blue first and black second. Luis, the Hispanic partner regarded as a “n—er with straight hair, is scared to move forward. He’s got kids. Kevin Quinn needs this to just move on. The shooting of a lowlife Hispanic is not worth risking his advancement in politics. Al is challenged and turns to his Jewish mentor, Lee Richardson (Leo Bloomfield) for guidance, who can help him get this pushed up the ranks and nab Mike for his atrocities, while circumventing the racist and antisemitic nature of Deputy District Attorney Quinn.
It gets more complicated for Al, as his ex-girlfriend, Nancy (Jenny Lumet, Sidney’s daughter) is now attached to an important witness to the crime. Bobby Texador (Armand Assante) is a Hispanic drug dealer who can not only pin Mike for the crime but also incriminate others within the system. He’s just not so willing to sing. Al is in a difficult quagmire that circles back to pension left for his mother per his father’s prior service. He’s also wracked with how to handle Nancy. They broke up simply because his reaction upon learning that her father was a black man did not go so well. Even Al, born of virtue, is corrupt of prejudice. Perhaps Lumet’s screenplay suggests the message that intrinsically we are all at least a little too stereotypical or partial for our own good. It comes with our sensibilities and maybe it’s a mindset we best unlearn. The most obvious challenge for Al is that he is subjected to intimidation from his boss Quinn, and especially Mike. You don’t want Nick Nolte in your face. That’s for sure.
I can’t lie. Having watched the film for the first time, I was only looking at the plot and story development of Q & A. I wasn’t seeing the bigoted culture sewn in among the masses. Afterwards, I watched Siskel & Ebert on You Tube and they focused on the racist themes and casual name calling among the characters. It never occurred to me while I was in the moment of watching the movie. I don’t know what that says about me. Maybe I’ve grown as comfortable with racist name calling as these characters have. I don’t talk this way. I may laugh at Cards Against Humanity or Family Guy. For these cops to talk among themselves, casually using prejudiced connotations for African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Homosexuals, Transvestites, Jews and Italians within the melting pot of New York City with such nonchalance is more telling of Q & A, than the corruption that unfolds over the course of the picture. Understanding what Siskel and Ebert found within the script granted me much more appreciation for Lumet’s film, because the twists of the plot and the overpopulation of characters was becoming too convoluted for me.
The strengths of the movie come from the cast performances, especially Nolte and Assante. Nolte has played many roles where he’s the brute. Here though, he’s downright despicable with his slicked back hair, tall stature, his thick “I’m your buddy” mustache, and his Irish Catholic character background that announces his superiority to all others. Armand Assante is an unusual kind of drug kingpin. He plays Bobby Texador with much self-awareness knowing he can be killed not only for what he knows about this particular shooting but other inside information he can share as well. He’s a guy who will rise above any threat though. This guy might be a criminal, but he hardly needs an attorney to negotiate on his behalf.
The trio of Nolte, Assante and Hutton works because each of the men are so different from one another. These guys wouldn’t work well on a baseball team together. They wouldn’t even socialize at parties. Lumet writes these characters so far apart from each other, that loyalty can’t exist between any of them.
A lot of the characteristics of the film are consistent with many other achievements within Lumet’s repertoire like Night Falls On Manhattan and Serpico. Those are better films. When plot details reveal themselves in Q & A, I found myself rewinding to the beginning of a few scenes to fully comprehend what was just said. After a while, I gave up interest in the twists.
There was a choice of musical style that left me unsure as well. Ruben Blades conducted the score for the film and a pop/rock song follows the prologue over the opening credits. It later resurfaces as things are coming to a head near the end of the film. Especially for the seedy and unglamourous approach that I love in Sidney Lumet’s films, I wasn’t enthusiastic on this style to heighten the dramatic crescendos. It felt a little too Miami Vice, when I believe Lumet was aiming for his audience to get mad at the corruption that overtakes a system grounded in law and order.
Q & A is a must see for fans of Sidney Lumet. I’m glad I finally saw it. It’s been on my bucket list for quite a while and I could not find it anywhere on any platform or medium. (At the time of this writing, it’s available for free on Hulu.) It’s definitely raw in its character creatures of a New York City from the 1990s, and it’s honest how the rite of passage to be a cop is to roll with the punches of racially lampooning your ethnicity. It’s the only way to survive among the masses. Fortunately, the cast plows through with that ugly nature to deliver something authentic. When the film dives into its conspiracies for the sake of the plot, however, it’s a little too muddied for me to appreciate. Watch the film for the characterizations. Heck, watch it for the plot developments because if you can make out everything that’s happening and why, I’d love for you to explain it to me.