Bruno Barreto's last film, Four Days in September (released in L.A. earlier this year), was a masterpiece – an unembellished account of a 1969 political kidnapping which managed to penetrate that difficult era with intelligence and heart. Barreto, a Brazilian, mapped his country's political life from the inside: Even the most brutal, self-deceived characters were depicted with such compassionate understanding that one couldn't hate them. From time to time, the same qualities grace One Tough Cop, but the battle fights uphill. The story is based on the autobiography of Bo Dietl (Stephen Baldwin), a former New York police detective who made an astounding 1,400 felony arrests in the course of his 15-year career. In Jeremy Iacone's script (most of which has been fictionalized to protect various privacies), Dietl is presented as a real-life Dirty Harry, a guy who has strong principles but a do-it-yourself interpretation of the law that costs him with the higher-ups.

Pressured by the FBI to roll over on a Mafia capo he's known since boyhood, Dietl refuses. When the mob pushes him to deal with the gambling debts incurred by his partner, Duke (Chris Penn), he keeps his nerve and plays mob guys off each other even as the FBI tries to use the situation to set a trap for him. When a nun in his neighborhood is raped, beaten and left for dead (an infamous real-life case from the early 1980s that Dietl cracked), it's his mob contacts that turn up the winning leads. Sidney Lumet has made a life's work out of this mighty theme: A cop makes his home in a lawless realm in order to protect the law. Unfortunately, Iacone's script squanders the potential in a series of cliches. Early on, there's a hostage scene in a neighborhood grocery store, in which Dietl has to negotiate with a panicked gunman. Later, when the Feds (led by Amy Irving, in an underwritten role) lay the heat on him, they exclaim things like “You're dirty” and “Say goodbye to your career,” dialogue that's no doubt true to the ways cops talk, but in this context smacks of NYPD Blue. Toward the middle of the film, Dietl even lies in bed with a woman friend (Gina Gershon) and talks about why he became a cop, as mellow piano chords softly tiptoe in accompaniment.

Barreto has the good sense to cut this last aria short, and in general uses the familiarity of such touches to give the film's more offbeat strokes greater definition. Driven by subtleties in the acting, the details of Dietl's mob friendships and his partner's descent into debt and vendetta stand out sharply in contrast to the more formulaic conventions of the cop genre. One only wishes the screenplay were more layered. Dietl and his Mafia pal Richie (Mike McGlone) are both in love with the same woman (Gershon), a situation of which the mobster is unaware. The scenes between the two friends are filled with involving tensions, and though these pay off in an inevitable eruption, the betrayal has no underbelly. Gershon's character is little more than a prop in an unstated romance between male friends. This is a layer that Gershon, with her smoky, worldly-wise edge, is ideally equipped to articulate, but never does – a perfect waste.

Where Four Days in September represented decades of meditation and first-hand passion, One Tough Cop is a routine assignment, a labor of craft to which Barreto nonetheless brings a deeper humanity than most directors, and a warmer skill with actors. He certainly brings out the best in Stephen Baldwin and Chris Penn, two fine actors who have been unjustly overshadowed by their older brothers. Together the three manage to turn what might have been a grinding plot-opera into something fresh and character-driven, something that for all its limits is solid and diverting from end to end.

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