AMERICAN moviegoers have an unending fascination with police officers, and melodramas about police officers. That includes filmmaker Sidney Lumet, who never wearies of trotting out men (and occasionally women) in blue, to shoot up each other and the mean streets of New York City, which he far prefers to Hollywood studios.
He has made all kinds of films, from minor classics like ``Twelve Angry Men'' and ``Long Day's Journey Into Night'' to the recent ``Family Business'' and ``Running on Empty,'' but in the end he's probably best known for cop epics like ``Serpico'' and ``Dog Day Afternoon'' and ``Prince of the City.''
Mr. Lumet's new picture, ``Q&A,'' returns to this familiar territory. The title refers to ``question and answer,'' as in a legal interrogation. But don't get the idea this is a talking-head drama.
It's a down-and-dirty look at nasty criminals and just-as-nasty cops, chasing and blasting each other in some of Manhattan's toughest neighborhoods. It's also a message picture, shouting a warning about corruption in low and high places.
The main characters are a grizzled cop (Nick Nolte) and a bright young assistant to the district attorney (Timothy Hutton). They're both supposed to be on the same side of the law, but the first thing the movie shows is the cop shooting down a criminal in a way that's as illegal as it is ruthless.
The slick, ambitious D.A. tells his new assistant to collect the facts of the case (the first Q&A of the story) and tell the grand jury it was justifiable homicide.
But the D.A. is too eager; the assistant is too clever; and the cop in trouble is too despicable for things to work out quite so easily - as you'll guess a minute into the movie if you've ever seen one like this before.
And who hasn't?
Lumet wrote ``Q&A'' as well as directing it, and his screenplay hammers on a couple of main themes. One is the corruption he sees in the police, judicial, and political systems of New York, and probably all big cities. The other is racism, which he attacks by showing it to us in all its vicious ugliness.
These evils are hardly new to movie treatment. (Indeed, the corruption angle was handled in a remarkably similar way by the recent ``Everybody Wins,'' also with Mr. Nolte, which faded from view almost as soon as it hit the screen.)
It's always salutary to be reminded of our society's shortcomings, of course, but Lumet doesn't exercise much taste when dealing with them. Rather, he rubs our noses in them as if we wouldn't get the point any other way, much as he did in ``Daniel,'' one of his earlier big message pictures. (What a shame he so rarely rediscovers the subtlety that distinguished ``The Verdict,'' his last really first-rate offering.)
And while racism is a major target of his attack, he seems less bothered by fear and hatred of homosexuals - the picture's treatment of gay characters has its own tinge of racism, and sometimes more than a tinge.
``Q&A'' means well, and some of its performances are marvelously strong: Nolte and Mr. Hutton make excellent foils for each other; Patrick O'Neal and Armande Assante are sleazily appropriate as bad guys; and Jenny Lumet has extraordinary charm in a secondary role.
But neither the action nor the message of the film seems to be firmly under control. It's more intimidating than convincing.