City of Hope

From Return Of The Secaucus Seven to Eight Men Out, John Sayles has spent a decade writing, directing and acting in fiercely independent low-budget films that buck a seductively corrupt system. City of Hope, a riveting look at urban decay, is Sayles's most ambitious film to date.

The film weaves among nearly forty characters over a few eventful days in the fictional New Jersey town of Hudson City. Nick, a hot-tempered cokehead vividly played by Vincent Spano, kicks things off by quitting a union construction job procured by his fatcat contractor father, Joe (Tony Lo Bianco), who has ties with crooked politicos. Nick then gets entangled in a robbery set up by Carl the Fixer, played by Sayles with low-comic sleaze. In a parallel plot, Wynn, an idealistic black city councilman — extremely well acted by Joe Morton — takes on an explosive case involving two black teenagers (Jojo Smollett, Edward Jay Townsend) who avenge themselves on the white cops who hassle them by mugging a white jogger (Bill Raymond) and falsely claiming he tried to "suck our dicks."

In attempting a top-to-bottom portrait of urban corruption in a two-hour movie, Sayles sometimes overreaches. Using the ravings of a homeless man (the estimable David Strathairn) as a Greek chorus seems more suitable to the classical posturing of an Arthur Miller than the blunt muckraking of a film maverick. But Sayles brings something rare to American movies: a keen sense of purpose. The result is gutsy, knockdown entertainment.