There’s something reassuring old fashioned about Sidney Lumet’s Find Me Guilty. Despite its modern setting, the film is anchored firmly in a time when jokes were gags, Louis Armstrong sang about the whole world smiling, and directors had the confidence to make leisurely movies. Even in Find Me Guilty’s moments of weakness - and, believe me, they’re not hard to find - Lumet’s breezy confidence carries his film through, saving it from the trash heap of utter mediocrity.

Vin Diesel - with hair - stars as Jackie DiNorscio, a soldier in New Jersey’s Lucchese crime family, one of the “five families” than once ran mob activity in the area of New York City. In the late 1980s, 20 members of the family were brought to trial on 87 different charges; the trial ran for nearly two years, becoming the longest criminal trial in US history. Though 19 of the defendants hired lawyers, DiNorscio, a man who left school after eighth grade and whose legal experience stemmed entirely from his extensive jail time, elected to represent himself. For the next 21 months, his antics made him a thorn in the side of the defense, a source of constant irritation to the judge, and a complete wildcard in the eyes of the jury.

Constantly calling himself a “gagster, not a gangster,” DiNorscio used his bullish charm and natural instincts to find his way, sometimes, to success in the courtroom. Just as often, however, he was on the verge of being removed from the case, and he made an enemy of codefendant Nick Calabrese, who feared DiNorscio’s misbehavior would jeopardize all 20 of the defendants. As DiNorscio, Diesel is a strangely endearing combination of macho and insecure; he's blustery and fearless, but with a childlike eagerness to please that lurks just below the surface. What is so interesting about the performance is that one is never quite sure if the traits on display belong to his character or to Diesel himself. Since they work equally well for both, however, it doesn't matter which man we're really seeing: the performance succeeds and, as a result, convincingly raises Diesel above the level of what Lumet calls “a race car action hero” for the first time.