Typecast again as a weathered cop in City By The Sea, Robert De Niro slips into a role he's been all too comfortable playing in recent years, often seeming more like a reliable character actor than one of the most daring and combustible leading men of his generation. But as the gears of this conventional, old-fashioned melodrama creak slowly and inexorably up to speed, De Niro's controlled, almost stately reserve begins to melt away, leading to a few unguarded moments that are staggering in their power. He may not be the same actor he was 30 years ago, but he can still access those high emotional registers, if the material rouses him from slumber and demands something more than a dignified, slow-burning brood. Loosely based on real events, City By The Sea takes place on the dilapidated strip of Long Beach, which was a vacationers' paradise until the Hamptons lured the tourists away, leaving the place to rot into a haven for drugs, petty crime, and other shady dealings. Having long since abandoned the area for his job as a New York City detective, De Niro has settled into a pleasant romantic routine with his downstairs neighbor (Frances McDormand), downplaying the troubled family history he left behind. But when his junkie son James Franco, whom he abandoned after a messy divorce 14 years earlier, is fingered for stabbing a powerful dealer, De Niro has to confront the skeletons in his closet, including his father's execution for child murder in the '50s. A braver movie might have explored the family's chilling disposition toward violence, but A City By The Sea sidesteps those issues by casting both incidents as cases of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Director Michael Caton-Jones also shows a heavy hand in bringing out the squalor of Long Beach, which he paints as a seedier Atlantic City, populated by abandoned casinos and generic lowlifes with names like Snake and Picasso. (In a typical example, Franco's strung-out girlfriend lives in an apartment above a triple-X peep show.) But once De Niro and Franco are reunited, their scenes recall the anguished father-son confrontations in East Of Eden, not least because of Franco's uncanny resemblance to James Dean, whom he recently played in a TV biopic. This time, however, the stakes are much higher, calling on De Niro to drum up the sort of emotional intensity that's been allowed to atrophy of late. City By The Sea isn't always worthy of him, but it makes enough demands to bring out his best.
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