According to Lorenzo Carcaterra's best-seller, in the summer of 1967, four friends from New York were sent to reform school after a fatal, misjudged prank. There, they were mentally and physically abused by the guards. In 1981, two of the boys - now gangsters - came face to face with one of their old tormentors, and murdered him. The district attorney who volunteered to prosecute the case was, in fact, another of the original four friends, and he secretly conspired with the defence to ensure a not-guilty verdict, while finally exposing the heinous activities of the guards. And this is a true story? The novel is badly written but queasily compelling - indeed the clumsy prose is one of the more authentic aspects of an illogical, highly improbable revenge fantasy. In his flat-footed, exorbitant adaptation, writer/director Levinson has done nothing to sift the half-truths from the melodrama, and the baroque handling of the reform school sequence even undermines the material's strongest claim on our attention, the revelation of child abuse. In the first half - with De Niro as a basketball-playing priest - Levinson never distills whatever it is that makes these kids stick together, while the second is strictly sub-Lumet courtroom histrionics. It's indicative of the all-round lack of focus that Hoffman (as an alcoholic lawyer) and Bacon (as the terrifying chief guard) are able to steal the movie with extravagant supporting turns, while the ostensible leads - Patric as the narrator Lorenzo, Pitt as the DA, Billy Crudup and Ron Eldard as the defendants - make such meagre impressions.
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