Homicide is nothing if not a clever package. The latest from playwright-turned-filmmaker David Mamet, the movie looks like an urban cop thriller, sounds like an urban cop thriller, and features the sort of feral, obscenity- spouting tough guys who populate urban cop thrillers. From the taut silence of its opening drug-raid sequence, it comes on as more of a down-and-dirty movie than Mamet's previous two films, the entertaining puzzler House of Games (1987) and the winsome fable Things Change (1988). This time, though, Mamet has pulled an elaborate fake-out. Beneath its seamy, violent surface, Homicide turns out to be a somber meditation on what it means to be Jewish and American at the same time. The movie poses the question: If you're both, which one comes first?
Bobby Gold (Joe Mantegna) thinks he knows. A veteran of the homicide bureau, Bobby is Jewish, but more than that, he's a cop. That's the source of his loyalty, his pride, his identity as a man. When he first came on the force, he was sloughed off by higher-ups who assumed that a Jewish guy had to be a wimp. Then Bobby proved himself a master at talking and listening to criminals; as a result, he was made chief hostage negotiator. Now, as a veteran, he's a star on the force, a cop who's so respected for his ability to communicate in tense situations that his fellow officers call him ''the orator.'' He's a walking contradiction: a hard-boiled mensch.
Bobby is in the midst of trying to apprehend a major drug suspect when he's sidetracked by a seemingly minor case. An elderly Jewish woman has been shot and killed in her inner-city candy store. The victim's son, an influential physician, pulls strings to get Bobby assigned to the case. Was the woman a casualty of random urban violence? Or was she the victim of an anti-Semitic conspiracy?
It wouldn't be kosher to reveal Mamet's twists. I'd be shirking my duty, though, if I failed to divulge that Homicide, after a taut and intriguing buildup, is a letdown. Bobby's investigation leads him to a cult of Jewish freedom fighters who try to get him to violate police protocol and, not so incidentally, to acknowledge the depth of his Jewish identity. In essence, they stage an elaborate guilt trip, implying that if he ignores their pleas, he's trampling on his own survival. When Bobby discovers what it is they're fighting, he starts to believe them.
But can we believe in Bobby's new, questioning spirit? For Homicide to work, the film needs to convince us that a man who faces hellish urban crime every day, who considers his fellow officers and, in particular, his Irish partner (William H. Macy) brothers, could be shaken to the soul by the ''revelation'' that there's grisly anti-Semitism in the world. None of this chimes with the character we've been watching. Mantegna, as gruffly appealing as ever, may have been the wrong actor to embody Mamet's tortured, introspective dilemmas. His staccato delivery, so perfect for rapping out the filmmaker's coiled-spring dialogue, doesn't mesh with the vulnerable emotions he's called on to display. And Mamet, by having the case lead to a murky, abstract conspiracy, ends up exploring questions of modern tribal identity without the dark resonance of a more conventional thriller like Sidney Lumet's Q&A (1990). Homicide is engrossing, at least for a while, but the truly personal movie it wants to be remains locked up in Mamet's head. B-