Picks and Pans Review: City of Hope

updated 11/04/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/04/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

Vincent Spano, Joe Morton

John Sayles is a lot like Spike Lee, minus the high profile and the posturing. Both men make movies that, even when they don't work completely, are far more substantive and involving than most of the by-the-numbers Hollywood pap.

This latest from Sayles (Matewan, Eight Men Out) is a good case in point. It's a depressingly accurate portrait of contemporary urban life, complete with political corruption, racial incidents and crime. Sayles wrote, edited and directed, and he crams in half a dozen overlapping stories and two dozen characters. The canvas proves too large in the end, though it's exhilarating to watch his attempt.

The two main characters are Nick (Spano), a young construction worker who has turned to drink, drugs and petty crime while trying to find his place in the world, and Wynn (Morton), an idealistic black politician attempting to work within the system on behalf of those who have been left out of it. Each man has to figure out where his values and loyalties lie, and whether being true to himself means having to distance himself from family or community.

Morton is especially good, and the fine ensemble cast makes the most of Sayles's smart true-to-life dialogue. "He's the only f—- I know stupid enough to quit a no-show job," someone says of Nick after he walks off one of his father's construction sites. Later in the film, a white college professor is asked what he teaches by a black teenager who has mugged him. "Urban relations," the professor replies. "What's that?" the kid wonders.

Good question. Sayles tries, in a commendable effort, to provide an answer. (R)

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