Film Reviews

Auteur, auteur!

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Burnett, to his credit, exceeds them with alarming regularity. His 1990 domestic drama To Sleep With Anger, an elegant, elliptical movie about a Deep South relative (Danny Glover) who upends the life of a middle-class, California-ized L.A. family, was hailed as a masterwork of understated social observation. Some critics called it one of the finest American films of the past quarter-century.

In light of such praise, Burnett's latest picture, The Glass Shield, will probably come as a disappointment to many critics and fans and a turnoff to first-time viewers of his work. An intriguing reworking of the police corruption subgenre, the picture follows the brief career of a young African-American patrolman named J.J. Johnson (Michael Boatman), the first black face in an all-white suburban California police department.

Weaned on comic books, movies, and other heroic representations of cops, J.J. enters his job with feckless idealism, but soon discovers that his new colleagues aren't terribly friendly. They avoid getting to know him and shoot disapproving looks when he's done nothing to offend them. His superiors come down on him extra hard whenever he screws up, and they ride him much harder than most of J.J.'s fellow patrolmen.

Because he's so eager to be accepted, J.J. makes a crucial mistake: he agrees to fudge an arrest report to protect a gung-ho white officer (Don Harvey) who's accused of mistreating a murder suspect (Ice Cube). Once he's gone down the dishonest road, J.J. discovers it's astonishingly hard to turn back.

Burnett explores the subtle office racism of the 1990s with remarkable clarity. Coupled with his restrained approach to storytelling, which eschews harsh language and explicit violence and advances the plot in a series of short, emotionally direct scenes, The Glass Shield looks and sounds, at first, like a startlingly original movie.

But it goes off the rails when J.J. realizes that the minor corruptions he observes among his white peers are just the tip of the iceberg. With the help of a white female cop, Deborah Fields (Lori Petty), who's sympathetic to his oppression, J.J. embarks on a campaign to expose the evil in his own department, alienating his fellow officers along the way. Eventually he is drawn into a film noirish web of thuggery, murder, and other outrages--few of which are presented in a plausible, realistically detailed manner. The movie abandons workaday believability and settles into a weirdly unconvincing pop-culture fugue state, piling incident upon outrageous incident until the likable, intelligent film you were watching originally is transformed into a slightly-above-average episode of "Miami Vice" or "In the Heat of the Night."

The actors are uniformly fine, especially Boatman in the lead; Ice Cube as the put-upon murder suspect; and Richard Anderson--a.k.a. Oscar Goldman from TV's "The Six Million Dollar Man"--as a veteran division chief whose lifelong concessions to corruption are hidden behind a sweet, fatherly smile. (Even Petty, a terminally grating actress, is quiet, intense, and very watchable here.) But these are minor respites from a movie full of too-familiar material. Director Sidney Lumet's acclaimed cop corruption trilogy--Serpico, Prince of the City, and Q & A--traveled this terrain before, and had far more interesting things to say about it, especially the latter, which sensitively and forcefully examined the subject of racism both within a police department and without, and somehow managed to strike a condemnatory pose without plunging into either hysterical pessimism or ludicrous hope.

The Glass Shield isn't nearly as rich, complex, or focused, although superficially it might feel that way. Burnett is certainly to be commended for his astonishing formal control; there isn't a single shot, scene, or line of dialogue in the picture that feels extraneous to the story. But his script needed a few more passes through the typewriter.

Burnett in interviews has had far more relevant, provocative, and complicated things to say about race relations and police misdeeds than you'd ever guess from watching this movie. This time, the startling, brave, and horribly ironic images and situations that fueled so much of Burnett's work to near-greatness seem to have deserted him--vanished into the space between lines and cuts.

Or perhaps it's still in his head--the congealed residue of a terrific concept mulled over so long, that when it came time to make the film, he believed that having strong opinions was the same as expressing them. The Glass Shield isn't an awful movie; in the lingo of its subjects, it's only a misdemeanor. But in the context of Burnett's ongoing career, it amounts to a felony--a crime against his own astonishing potential.

Burnt by the Sun. Sony Pictures Classics. Nikita Mikhalkov, Olege Menchikov, Ingeborga Dapkouaite, Nadia Mikhalkov. Written and directed by Nikita Mikhalkov. Opens 9.

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Matt Zoller Seitz