Writer-Director David Mamet (House of Games, Things Change) has crafted a mesmerizing thriller, and he's done it the hard way: The suspense evolves from a philosophical search into the nature of identity. Joe Mantegna delivers a brilliant, multifaceted performance as Bobby Gold, a career cop who represses his Jewishness until a black officer calls him a kike. Gold is furious, not at the word but at the tone. His fury mounts when he's yanked off the hunt for a cop killer and told to investigate the murder of an old Jewish woman in Baltimore's black ghetto. Making an antisemitic remark on the phone, Gold is reprimanded by Chava (Natalija Nogulich), one of the dead woman's relatives, who overhears his slurs. For perhaps the first time in his life, Gold feels shame.

To the dismay of Officer Tim Sullivan (W.H. Macy), his Irish buddy, Gold shifts loyalties from his uniform to his heritage. Seeing the woman's murder as part of an antisemitic conspiracy, he gets involved in the Jewish defense underground. In one shocking scene, he bombs a store loaded with Nazi paraphernalia.

Gold's swift transition from cop to terrorist is hard to swallow, but its suddenness is integral to a man whose sense of duty is inextricably linked to violence. In trying to trade one identity for another, he winds up in limbo, a permanent outsider. The film's climax places Gold in a bloody police shootout that is shattering in its desolation. Mamet is not an ingratiating filmmaker. Purposely out of step with the feel-good-movie era, he offers caustic wit instead of gags, blunt questions instead of glib answers and challenges instead of reassurances. Bless him.