It's A Hell Of A Town

YOU CAN'T FIGHT CITY HALL, SAYS the hoary adage. Al Pacino as New York City Mayor John Pappas is trying to make his _B_City Hall _b_ a place you don't have to fight, a place that cares, that gets things done. He's a pragmatic and charismatic guy who long ago came to terms with the deal in idealism; he knows how to trade with the power-and-moneymen without whom nothing happens. It's Deputy Mayor Kevin Calhoun (John Cusack) who's the pristine idealist. After three years he still isn't hip to what's going on. Well, he loves Pappas, father-son stuff, and love paints a rainbow in the gray space between black and white.

As Pappas says: ""The scale of humanity runs from Charles Manson to Mother Teresa, and the rest of us are somewhere in between.'' So this is a movie about our old friend Mo -- Moral Ambiguity. Mo surfaces after a street shootout kills a hero cop, a drug dealer and a 6-year-old black child. Public outrage forces attention to the municipal machinery whose interlinking cogwheels are politicians, developers, judges and mob guys. These types constitute a savory New York deli dish: from under his yarmulke chief of staff Abe Goodman (David Paymer) spritzes Talmudic sayings. Calhoun is a ""good Louisiana lapsed Catholic.'' Frank Anselmo (Danny Aiello), the last of the clubhouse bosses, belts out not Verdi but Rodgers and Hammerstein. Pappas is a Greek whose oratory invokes Pericles as ""the first and only great mayor.''

Director Harold Becker (""The Onion Field,'' ""Sea of Love'') makes ""City Hall'' absorbing in its evocation of New York fauna and rhythms. The problem is in the screenplay. The big-name credits, ""written by Ken Lipper and Paul Schrader & Nicholas Pileggi and Bo Goldman,'' arouse suspicion of the classic Hollywood too-many-cooks disease (Frank Pierson also wrote a script). But, Becker says, what's on screen is solely the work of Goldman, a two-time Oscar winner for ""One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest'' and ""Melvin and Howard.''

The screenplay's most obvious flaw is the gap in Bridget Fonda's role as a crusading lawyer who first attacks but finally cuddles up to Calhoun. More serious is a softness that robs the film of ultimate tension and excitement. Goldman and Becker are in love with moral ambiguity; they caress it rather than dramatize it. Pericles would have said: ""This flick should be John Pappas's agon'' -- a life-and-death conflict. We should see him wrestling with Mo, struggling to deal with the devils without becoming one himself. But everything's seen from Calhoun's angle (Ken Lipper was a deputy mayor for Ed Koch) and all we get of Pappas's internal drama is a self-justifying speech at the end. The movie seems seduced by its own aura of inside expertise; it misses the tension of Sidney Lumet's New York films like ""Prince of the City.'' Its chief pleasure is the acting of the big cast, notably Pacino. At 55, he has a haggard, life-wrestling beauty and a street eloquence that has more innocence than De Niro and more sincerity than Nicholson.