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Turkey doesnt serve De Niro

Talented cast wasted in lame cop drama; wait for the video

In the decades since Marlon Brando changed the face of screen acting, no one has left more defining lines on that face than Robert De Niro.

Perhaps owing to the current state of Hollywood filmmaking, or to his own choices, the past several years have rarely shown us the actor at his greatest. In fact, he has found most recent success giving his image a ribbing in hit comedies like 'Analyze This' and 'Meet the Parents.'

The new thriller 'City by the Sea' is a film that feels like it would not even have seen the light of a projector without De Niro's participation. OK, maybe Al Pacino would have gotten a call if De Niro had said no. But without such a weighty presence the script likely would have headed for TV movieland, where it belongs.

Based on a true story, 'City by the Sea' has De Niro as New York City homicide cop Vincent LaMarca. His latest case hits home in a way he never could have expected when his estranged son, Joey (James Franco), becomes the chief suspect. Worse yet, the hunt for Joey leads to the death of LaMarca's partner, a crime for which Joey also takes the rap. Now branded a cop killer, Joey's fate depends on whether the concerned father or the angry cops find him first.

The case provides an unwelcome homecoming for LaMarca, leading back to the seaside town of Long Beach, Long Island. Fourteen years earlier, LaMarca left the town behind, along with his wife and son. The former resort is now a virtual ghost town, as haunted as LaMarca. When he was a boy, LaMarca's own father was executed, and he now fears that in trying to escape his past he may have doomed Joey's future.

This could have made for a gripping thriller propelled by strong personal drama. But the flat script is never fleshed out by director Michael Caton-Jones, whose spotty career is highlighted by another De Niro vehicle, 'This Boy's Life.'

Desperately lacking in any sense of urgency, 'City by the Sea' never makes us feel LaMarca's burden. It just tells us about it. Caton-Jones can't bring his decaying locations to life as a place, let alone a metaphor, and he moves through a world of drug users and dealers as droopily as a junkie on the nod.

All De Niro can really do with the material is distinguish it with his presence, which is more than the rest of the cast is allowed to do. Frances McDormand is wasted as his girlfriend, with nothing to do but react to the secrets he should have revealed sooner. At least the young actors Ñ Franco, Eliza Dushku as Joey's girlfriend, and Anson Mount as a sympathetic cop Ñ each get a scene or two with The Man, which is clearly why they're here.

But you don't need to be there. This will be right at home on video, where the De Niro presence will carry even more weight. And you'll be able to rewind in case you doze off, unless you've already taken the fast-forward option.