DAVID MAMET has enjoyed more success as a playwright than as a filmmaker. Stage works like "American Buffalo" and "Glengarry Glen Ross" are major contributions to the recent American theater. By contrast, Mamet's movie career has swung from the clever but tricky "House of Games" to the unmemorable "Things Change," making little impression outside a limited circle of art-film enthusiasts.So it's a pleasure to report that Mr. Mamet's new "Homicide" is one of the year's most exciting and stimulating films. In some ways, it's a natural continuation of his career: The star is Joe Mantegna, his frequent collaborator, and it acquires much of its driving force from the stylized, clipped-and-cut dialogue that has become one of his trademarks. In other ways, though, it's a departure - starting as a violent police thriller, but deepening into a meditation on issues of ethnicity, religion, and loya lty. Mr. Mantegna plays Robert Gold, a Jewish cop on the Chicago homicide squad. At the start of the story, he's pursuing a major case involving an African-American criminal. The black community is watching the situation - including the efforts of this white cop to solve it - with unusual care. Then, abruptly, Gold is transferred to a new assignment he cares little about: investigating the murder of an old Jewish woman in an act of apparently random violence. He's furious at being put on such a small-time case, but soon his probing turns up unusual angles. Forces he never encountered before, including organized anti-Semites and passionate Jewish resistors, may be implicated in circumstances surrounding the murder. Each turn brings him more deeply into a web of intrigue, forcing him to reconside r his identity as a Jew and a police officer, and to make new assessments of where his loyalties should lie. "Homicide" is a modestly made picture, reflecting Mamet's independence of the major Hollywood studios and their familiar formulas. The movie's production values aren't very imposing, and occasional details - a seemingly minor subplot about a broken piece of police equipment, for instance - are handled less gracefully than one might wish. The impact of the movie lies less in its visual or melodramatic elements, however, than in the power of its issues and its intelligence in exploring them. While it's ingenious as a thriller, with a surprising plot and a superb twist at the very end, it is most valuable as a serious look at questions of ethnicity and personal conviction in today's complicated urban landscape. Mamet wrestles with these questions in a way that reveals deep personal interest on his part, moreover, avoiding neat or easy resol utions. Mamet's involvement with these issues is mirrored by his protagonist, especially at a moment when Gold must decide whether to take harsh and irrevocable action, or keep the neutrality of a police officer who just follows orders. As he decides, Gold makes a small destructive gesture that signifies the passion welling into his consciousness, and shows that he is now committed to a new way of living and thinking. On one level, "Homicide" is the story of man who does what popular wisdom always exhorts us to do - he "takes a stand" for what he believes in - and finds that it won't make anything easier in his life, but rather more difficult than ever. Yet also more interesting, and infinitely more meaningful. "Homicide" may be too serious and offbeat for major box-office success, and some elements may generate controversy in ways Mamet didn't intend - as when the film brings its main Jewish and African-American characters together in a climactic scene, using them both as symbols of marginalized communities, yet ultimately allowing the Jew more dignity than his black counterpart. The capacity of "Homicide" to provoke thought and debate is one of its most important assets, however. We aren't likely to see a mor e substantial or stimulating film this year.
The film is rated R; it contains rough language and violence.