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`CITY HALL’ TRIES TO BE `GODFATHER,’ BUT . . .

SHARE `CITY HALL’ TRIES TO BE `GODFATHER,’ BUT . . .

"City Hall" would like to be the "The Godfather" of city-government movies, and there are some big, sweeping moments that echo that film - not least of which is an over-the-top performance by Al Pacino as the mayor of New York.

But in this case, the film makes an offer you can easily refuse.The mayor is not the central character in "City Hall." That role goes to John Cusack, as the mayor's idealistic, incorruptible deputy.

The plot spins around an incident that occurs as the film opens. A police detective confronts a mobster, there is a shootout and both men are killed - along with an innocent bystander, a 6-year-old child.

The ensuing hue and cry puts the mayor on the hot-seat over crime in the streets, and his deputy decides to personally investigate the situation. That investigation takes him through a melange of corruption that eventually leads back to city government.

As directed by Harold Becker ("Sea of Love"), the film is loaded with references and bits of business that seem authentic (one of the screenwriters, Ken Lipper, was deputy to New York Mayor Ed Koch - and Koch has an on-TV cameo).

And it's nice to see Cusack in a full-bodied big-screen role that makes good use of his talents, playing a good-ol'-boy who is never adrift in big-city politics (he hasn't been this prominent in a wide-release film since "The Grifters").

But there's a point about mid-way through the picture where everything begins to feel predictable, like a made-for-network-television movie that we've seen too many times before.

And the centerpiece scene - with the mayor making a grandstanding speech during the child's funeral - is embarrassingly wrong-headed. It would seem more logical for the family and friends at the funeral to be outraged by the mayor's performance. But instead, he is applauded.

On the plus side, the mayor is played with some shading, as a good man who wants to do the right thing. And all the central characters here - except the workaholic deputy mayor - are shown to have families and personal lives away from their jobs.

There is a sense, however, that much of Becker's movie has been left on the cutting-room floor. Maybe he intended a three-hour epic that was eventually edited down to this two-hour melodrama. That might explain why Bridget Fonda (as an attorney and Cusack's tentative love-interest) and Martin Landau (as a judge who made a questionable decision some years earlier) seem to get short shrift, and why there are so many scenes that begin or end abruptly.

Danny Aiello contributes nicely as a corrupt councilman, Anthony Franciosa (where has he been?) is quite good as an aging mob boss and David Paymer is terrific (if underused) as the mayor's chief of staff.

"City Hall" is rated a fairly soft R for some violence, some scattered profanity and a couple of vulgar remarks.