Q&A (United States, 1990)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Q & A is testimony to the validity of the old adage: a good story, when well told, can never be told too many times. With this movie, director Sidney Lumet doesn't bring anything radical to the screen. The premise - a decorated cop discovered to be dirty - has been utilized to the point of overuse, where it has become a cliché. But that doesn't stop the filmmakers of Q & A from providing a different angle on a tale that, although unevenly presented, is at times gripping. Performances are the heart of the film's strength. It's impossible to get far into a discussion of Q & A without mentioning the volcanic interpretations of Nick Nolte and Armand Assante. Playing opposite those two, poor Timothy Hutton doesn't stand a chance.

This isn't the first or the last time Lumet has ventured into the world of corrupt New York City cops. This is one of four occasions - the other three being Serpico, Prince of the City, and Night Falls on Manhattan. Clearly, there's something about the subject the director finds compelling. Perhaps it's the question of whether a cop can be truly effective without stampeding over the civil rights of others. Maybe it's an issue of the betrayal to society of a defender turning into a predator. Or maybe it's just an examination of the proverb that power corrupts. Whatever the case, these three themes are touched upon in each of Lumet's four New York City cop movies.

The movie opens outside the back door of a nightclub, with Captain Michael Brennan (Nick Nolte) shooting a man in cold blood. Brennan arranges things to make the shooting appear to be in self-defense, then awaits the arrival of the police, who will accept whatever tale he tells. Shortly thereafter, Assistant D.A. Al Reilly (Timothy Hutton) is awakened from a sound sleep by the ringing of the telephone. On the other end is Kevin Quinn (Patrick O'Neal), Chief of Homicide. He expects Reilly in his office in less than an hour. Quinn wants Reilly to take the Brennan case. The investigation should be short and straightforward. Reilly only needs to take a few statements then present the open-and-shut case to a Grand Jury. The "Q & A" (the written record of witness' statements) should be clean. Brennan is one of the city's finest, a great cop whose story should not be challenged.

Almost immediately, however, Reilly and his two detective assistants, Luis Valentin (Luis Guzman) and Sam Chapman (Charles Dutton), uncover inconsistencies. The biggest one comes from mob-connected drug dealer Bobby Tex (Armand Assante), whose story doesn't ring true. Complicating matters for Reilly is that Tex is involved with his old flame, Nancy Bosch (Jenny Lumet), for whom he still carries a torch. Despite wanting to satisfy Quinn and close the case quickly, Reilly's suspicions about Brennan force him to push onward, putting himself and others in danger.

Although the central conflict might appear to be between Brennan and Reilly, it isn't. Instead, it's a moral struggle within Reilly. Like almost everyone, he wants to belong. He wants to be a member of the exclusive club of New York's finest. He admires the police - his father was a legend on the force, and he started his career in uniform before moving to the D.A.'s office. Quinn all-but-promises him admission to that "club" if he rubber stamp's Brennan's passage through the system. Ignore the stench of something rotten, and help out a fellow Irish American. Don't side with the Puerto Ricans. But Reilly has a conscience. The battleground in Q & A is for possession of his soul.

The police force, as presented by Lumet, is a fascinating environment. Bigotry abounds. On the surface, the racism is expressed in seemingly good-natured jokes and jibes, but there's an undercurrent of anger. Brennan is described as an equal opportunity hater, and there's some truth to that. He's friendly with Chapman, "the whitest black" he knows, but when the chips are down, he'll band together with his fellow Irish Americans against the rest of the city. Brennan exemplifies what is the best and worst about cops: he's a no-nonsense guy who favors action over talk, and brutality over diplomacy. He gets results, but his means are in question. Many on the force are aware that he's no choir boy (although they may not believe him to be an assassin), but he's such a god-like figure that no one will question his methods - no one except a lily-white guy sitting behind a desk.

One area where the screenplay missteps is in presenting the half-developed romance between Reilly and Nancy. The intent is plain - to highlight Reilly's internal struggle with race (Nancy is half-Puerto Rican and half-black). He lost her because of inbred racism. Now he wants a chance to save her. Unfortunately, the actors aren't able to convey the tension between these two, and the script leaves this feeling like a subplot that's only half developed. Many of the scenes featuring the love story don't work, and they hurt the film's pacing.

Nolte and Assante are at their best. They take turns stealing scenes and, since they're almost never on screen at the same time, they don't vie with each other for the camera's attention. Incredibly, neither received an Oscar nomination, although Assante was recognized (a dubious honor) by the Golden Globes. Timothy Hutton wisely doesn't try to outdo his co-stars. His performance is low key. He plays Reilly like an "everyman," and it works more often than not. It would have been nice, however, for the character to have a stronger backbone. From the supporting cast, O'Neal, Dutton, and Guzman are fine. Jenny Lumet (the director's daughter) is hit-and-miss. Her best scene occurs when Reilly confronts her inside her mother's house.

In the end, Q & A asks two questions. What makes a good cop? When does justice become more important than fraternity? Lest this sound too cerebral, let me point out that Q & A is a police procedural containing thriller elements, and (except for the Reilly/Nancy scenes) it moves at a without a stutter. Nolte and Assante are riveting, and the movie never threatens to lose our interest. Following Q & A, director Lumet went into a slump. His next two movies were box office and critical failures, and it would be seven years before he would emerge with another engrossing film, Night Over Manhattan - which once again looked behind the scenes of the New York City police force. Q & A will not be remembered as one of Lumet's great movies, but it's a solid effort and deserves to be seen by those who have deemed it unworthy because it's not on the same level as Dog Day Afternoon, Network, and The Verdict.

Q&A (United States, 1990)

Run Time: 2:12
U.S. Release Date: 1990-04-27
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Violence, Sexual Situations, Drugs)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1