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Energetic 'City Hall' Falls Short Of Being 'Godfather' Clone

DESPITE evidence to the contrary, not every filmmaker wants to be a Quentin Tarantino clone.

Some directors are still Martin Scorsese wannabes, although this is much less fashionable than it used to be. And a few reactionary types still aspire to be the next Francis Ford Coppola, which even Coppola hasn't managed to do in the decades since his first ''Godfather'' films made him a major director.

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In the new ''City Hall,'' filmmaker Harold Becker positively pants to take over Coppola's crown as chief chronicler of European-American power brokers, and ''Godfather'' star Al Pacino is on hand to back up his bid.

They put impressive energy into their tale of an ambitious New York mayor, narrated by a young deputy who watches his boss manage a complicated mix of municipal affairs - from crime problems to back-room politicking - as if they were sociopolitical oranges to be juggled and jiggled at his personal pleasure.

But the differences between Becker's achievement and Coppola's are so vast that few moviegoers will mistake this half-baked new film for the genuine article.

One big difference is locale. The original ''Godfather'' epics zoomed from New York City to places like Southern California, sun-struck resorts in Nevada and Florida, and the Sicilian countryside.

By contrast, Becker and company anchor most of ''City Hall'' in Manhattan and the neighboring boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, hoping to tease extra dramatic mileage from the mean streets and troubled neighborhoods where their characters live and work.

While they vary the background with occasional jaunts outside the urban scene, the overall picture has an oddly claustrophobic feel, as if the largest US city were closer to an overstuffed sardine can than the wide-open land of opportunity that has attracted immigrants for generations.

At the peak of his career, Coppola might have turned this sense of pressure-cooker compression into an effective atmosphere-builder, but in Becker's hands, it just limits the scope and sweep of the story. You feel as trapped as the people in the plot, and it's not a pleasant sensation.

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Looking to more crucial ingredients like scriptwriting and directing, ''City Hall'' falls short of its ''Godfather'' forebears in one department after another.

Coppola mustered an arsenal of cinematic techniques for tightening destiny's grip one relentless notch at a time. Seeking the same effect of timeless inevitability, Becker comes up with a string of arbitrary plot manipulations that rarely take on the narrative momentum they need.

Blame for the movie's slackness lies partly with director Becker for losing the nonstop intensity that made some of his earlier films, like ''The Onion Field'' and ''Sea of Love,'' respectable examples of their suspenseful breed.

It's not all his fault, though, since the picture was obviously dogged by script problems from the beginning. Why else would the producers have hired no fewer than four credited writers to twist its ideas into an acceptable shape?

While it's clear from the film's clunkiness that too many pens have scribbled away at it, movie buffs may consider this an asset rather than a liability, since they can amuse themselves during the boring spots by guessing which scribe was responsible for each of the movie's many gimmicks.

Ken Lipper, himself a former New York deputy mayor, dreamed up the original screenplay. But was it the religiously inclined Paul Schrader who threw in the murky ethical complexities? Did oddball specialist Bo Goldman juice up the eccentricities of the dialogue? Was it Mafia maven Nicholas Pileggi who injected the streetwise crime details?

And who's responsible for the tepid jokes about Yiddish vs. Italian as the argot du jour of the city-hall set? This stuff wouldn't be funny even if it were fresh, which it decidedly isn't.

Only the acting of ''City Hall'' is strong enough to deserve a vote of confidence. Pacino does a solid imitation of Mario Cuomo, the former governor of New York, bringing dark-toned fervor to his intimate scenes and delivering speeches with enough pizazz to remind us that politics and show business have an awful lot in common.

John Cusack is cool and credible as his young assistant, and David Paymer turns in another crisp performance as the mayor's chief of staff. Danny Aiello does well with his underwritten role as a Brooklyn party boss.

Less impressive are Bridget Fonda as a public defender - the weak performance isn't really her responsibility, since the movie treats her character as an afterthought - and the great Martin Landau, sadly underemployed as a melancholy judge. Michael Seresin did the cinematography, which shuttles between moody evocation and self-conscious artiness.

* ''City Hall'' has an R rating. It contains violence and vulgar language.

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