Sombre, unpretentious and quietly moving, "City by the Sea" is the sort of character-driven thriller Sidney Lumet ("Dog Day Afternoon", "Serpico") used to make.
Chances are prime-period Lumet would have sorted out some of the clunky, explanation-heavy dialogue in Ken Hixon's script, but still, this policier is a boost for Robert De Niro fans despairing at his recent descent into bland production line dross.
It's ironic that De Niro - who has spent so much time and money rejuvenating the Big Apple's Tribeca district - should star in a movie that so damningly runs down New York suburb Long Beach. The 'city by the sea' looks like Blackpool after a visit from Satan - scuzzy, graffiti-strewn, peppered with junkies and strip joints. One of the junkies is Joey (Franco), prime suspect in a murder case being worked on by Detective Vincent LaMarca (De Niro). The twist? Joey is the son LaMarca abandoned 14 years ago...
Far-fetched? Well, there's more: LaMarca's dad was executed in the 50s for child murder. Vincent once knocked his wife about. The media are wondering if the family has a 'murder gene'. Oh, and the movie's based on fact.
Regardless of the truth-link, "City" would still appear implausible - and the "sins of the father" theme laboured - were it not for the performances. For once there's a supporting cast that can stand up to De Niro. Character stalwarts William Forsythe and George Dzundza lend weight to their one-dimensional roles, and Frances McDormand gives presence to Vince's girlfriend. But most impressive are the youngsters - the mesmerising, fragile James Franco and surprisingly gutsy Eliza Dushku.
At the centre, De Niro gives his best dramatic performance in years - subtle, understated, pained-behind-the-eyes. There's more depth and emotion here than in his last 10 movies. Not exactly "GoodFellas", then, but a far cry from "Showtime".