By Leah Rozen
Updated September 16, 2002 12:00 PM

Robert De Niro, Frances McDormand, James Franco, Eliza Dushku

Robert De Niro may be one of the greatest actors of his generation, but he should lay off the cop roles for a spell. He has played a policeman in three out of his last four movies—200l’s 15 Minutes, last spring’s Showtime and now in City by the Sea—and each film has been crummy. In City, when De Niro’s New York City detective walks down a darkened hallway with his revolver at the ready and a wary look on his face, it seems—to quote that noted film critic Yogi Berra—like “déjà vu all over again.”

De Niro’s latest cop is Vincent LaMarca, a veteran homicide detective whose junkie son (Franco) has committed a murder and is now on the lam. As LaMarca tries to find his son, he confronts his own past and questions the role his actions—including having walked out on his wife (Patti LuPone) and child years ago—may have played in his kid’s downfall. (City is inspired by a true story, but the overwrought script takes considerable liberty with the facts.)

The end result is excessive back story. De Niro is saddled with far too many awkward scenes in which LaMarca must spout huge mouthfuls of exposition. The most painfully ludicrous of these comes when the chronically guarded LaMarca finally opens up to his girlfriend (McDormand), pelting her with personal revelation after revelation like a monkey hurling garbage in its cage.

Director Michael Caton-Jones (The Jackal) lets nearly everyone overact, with notes of shrillness and posing creeping into performances, particularly Franco’s. The exceptions are McDormand (though her supportive girlfriend role is standard issue) and LuPone, whose bitterness toward her ex is stinging. Elegiac note: Shot pre-Sept. 11, City contains at least three scenes in which the World Trade Center’s twin towers gleam in the distance. (R)

Bottom Line: Drowns in its own pathos