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Urban renewal A conventional thriller raises questions about the issues of race, parenting and even forgiveness

Dempsy is black and poor. Gannon is white and almost as poor.

The two seething fictional New Jersey towns in "Freedomland" sit next to each other in uneasy peace. It's commonplace American geography -- struggling black and white neighborhoods lying next to each other with a gulf of mutual suspicion and even terror in the middle. Everybody knows it wouldn't take much to set Dempsy and Gannon against each other. It's a geographic tinder box. All that's required is a spark . . .

A dazed white woman, for instance, wandering through a Dempsy housing project with bloody hands and a story about a black carjacker throwing her to the ground and driving off with her 4-year-old son still in the back seat.

Especially if that white Dempsy carjacking victim has a brother who's a cop in Gannon. It doesn't take long before the Dempsy projects are blockaded by cops while their black residents mill about, pushing, shoving and muttering about the sudden police state that has taken over their neighborhood. You can practically smell the burning buildings to come and see the blood soon to be streaking the streets.

It's not a great movie or even close, but it's a good one -- tough, complex and gripping in a genre (the urban drama of racial abrasion) we're seeing more and more. (To some of us, the great film of 2005 -- Paul Haggis' "Crash" -- was as brilliant an example of it as we've seen in a long time.)

Despite being adapted by movie pro Richard Price from his novel, it's a movie that would never have existed if Clint Eastwood's "Mystic River" hadn't shown what family tragedies can do to powder-keg working class communities.

Far more importantly, it wouldn't have existed if Sidney Lumet -- one of the great living filmmakers -- hadn't shown the way in so many films about his beloved New York: "The Pawnbroker," "Dog Day Afternoon," "Prince of the City," "Serpico" and "Q&A," multilayered films full of urban grit, films often based on nonfiction books and movies that develop like novels, full of ambiguity and character complexity.

The very fact that tough urban films in the Lumet style are continuing to be made without him in the 21st century is good news, no matter how over-the-top into melodrama "Freedomland" ultimately goes (a word of advice to young folk: If you've never seen those great Lumet New York movies, get thee to a video store immediately and rent one or two).

No one is too simple in "Freedomland." Everyone is a prism. Turn them ever-so-slightly in the light and you see a new color.

The tough, wise black cop who rules over the cauldron of the Dempsy housing projects (Samuel L. Jackson) is an asthmatic whose own son is doing a four-year stretch in the joint. The white Gannon victim looking for her son (Julianne Moore) is an ex-addict who is a beloved teacher in the basement of Dempsy's main housing project.

"Freedomland" refers to the abandoned school -- a nightmarish hellhole when it operated -- where the search for the missing kid eventually goes, as the tensions in Dempsy bubble up faster and faster and threaten to turn into a rolling boil.

Richard Price is, assuredly, one of the great current scriptwriters ("Sea of Love," "Night and the City," "New York Stories"). There are moments here where the writing is searing. In a magnificent, hair-raising turn, Edie Falco plays the leader of a group of largely female vigilantes who travel the country looking for missing children. "Men don't have the heart," she explains to the woman missing her son, with her tone never rising or her eyes never batting. "We are the hunters."

These are great film actors working at the top of their powers: the too-often professionally promiscuous Samuel L. Jackson as the cop trying to keep the lid on his boiling community while searching for the kid, Julianne Moore as the woman whose story is like so many other stories told to cops by suspicious white victims.

All the actors in the film get a big, long scene to themselves -- the dialogue equivalent of arias in an opera. All the actors are equal to every bit of juice Price can put into their mouths, which is considerable.

Too much, in fact.

And that is what's wrong with this wholly admirable but, in truth, ungainly and ill-conceived movie.

It's hard to get the tone right here. If it's too slack and unemphatically naturalistic, you're in the TV territory of "NYPD Blue." If the dialogue is too dramatically amped-up, you're suddenly dialed into a small off-Broadway theater listening to the kind of showpiece acting actors love and audiences often find off-putting.

The latter is where "Freedomland" falls at the worst times.

The director was Joe Roth, a hugely admirable film executive (the fellow, for instance, largely responsible for Nora Ephron's filmmaking career) who is, as a director, a man of far greater instincts than talents. If he'd been upstairs telling a young version of Sidney Lumet the kind of movie it should be, it really might have been something extraordinary.

Making it himself, you mostly have to admire the movie he wanted to make and only infrequently the one that he made. In the final analysis, he just wasn't the guy to make it.

Too many conventional choices were made because no one knew how to choose anything else (the music, for instance, by James Newton Howard is hopelessly and unimaginatively generic).

See it for the guts, the grit, and, especially, some of the writing and performances.

But know that it's like the cinematic equivalent of so much urban renewal -- noble in intention, ill-conceived in practice.


Review: 3 stars (Out of 4)

Samuel L. Jackson, Julianne Moore and Edie Falco in Joe Roth's melodrama about the mystery of a missing child and two racially unstable New Jersey communities. Rated R, opening Friday in area theaters.


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