Evidence points to petty `Crimes'

Review: Director Carl Franklin doesn't give `High Crimes' enough credibility to evoke psychological suspense.

April 05, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Many of us think that Carl Franklin's Devil in a Blue Dress was one of the best films of the '90s - and that Denzel Washington should have won an Oscar for playing private eye Easy Rawlins in it and not for The Hurricane, Malcolm X or Training Day.

Compared to that film noir and Franklin's earlier One False Move, his new thriller, High Crimes, is a middling achievement and a major disappointment.

This yuppie nightmare centers on a high-powered San Francisco lawyer (Ashley Judd) and a husband (Jim Caviezel) with a secret military past. Franklin's brilliant HBO miniseries Laurel Avenue, which detailed black family life in St. Paul, Minn., communicated more directly to me than this film, even though I'm white, have never been to St. Paul and lived for almost 16 years in San Francisco.

The movie is far from a disaster - it's too well cast and craftsman-like - but it is woefully miscalculated. While the couple is doing their Christmas shopping, federal agents ambush Judd and Caviezel and arrest him for committing a massacre in El Salvador and fleeing the scene, 15 years earlier. Caviezel assures Judd that his real crime was his refusal to go along with a cover-up. His tearful avowal of love is supposed to clinch his authenticity for Judd as well as for the audience, clearing the way for a David-and-Goliath courtroom drama in the vein of A Few Good Men.

But the movie doesn't work even on its own hand-me-down terms. The Goliath here is not a monstrous icon like Jack Nicholson: He's that terrific actor Bruce Davison in a mere two or three scenes that don't hand him a single juicy tirade or oration. All we get are the usual panoply of shadowy threats and fleeting confusions about whether the figures tailing Judd and her team are American renegades, aggrieved Salvadorans or others. The movie doesn't earn the right to its gravitas about El Salvador. And it sorts out all the mysteries too coarsely en route to a jagged-edged finale. I wasn't wild about Joseph Finder's novel (which is set in Cambridge, Mass., and Washington, instead of San Francisco, Marin County and a California Marine base). But at least Finder keeps readers and his heroine off-balance.

In the book, Judd's character detects her husband's capacity for homicide in his fury at a hotel that fouled up a reservation and at a neighbor who gouged a rut in their lawn with his Range Rover. (Finder is big on upper-crust lifestyles and brand names). The screenwriters, Yuri Zeltser and Cary Bickley, never turn the screws on the psychological suspense. The wife may mistrust her spouse, she may wonder whether he used his Special Forces skills to beat a polygraph, but she doesn't seriously consider her husband's ability to commit mass murder or ponder his moments of uncontrollable rage.

Morgan Freeman blessedly warms up the movie as a lawyer who's a self-described "wild card" for the defense - Freeman never fails to bring a whiff of humanity to the proceedings, even though his alcoholic character looking for a comeback dates back to Arthur O'Connell in Anatomy of a Murder (1959). And Judd is skillful at portraying a woman who starts out complacent and successful and learns the limits of her perspicacity.

Too bad the script keeps stumbling on its bootstraps with ludicrous vignettes like a jailhouse visiting-room slugfest between Caviezel and one of his antagonists, or the moment when a fellow pops up out of nowhere in a store aisle and tells Judd he trained Caviezel to beat a polygraph. Amanda Peet, as Judd's sister, does another version of her out-there sex kitten (it doesn't match her turn in The Whole Nine Yards), and Adam Scott has some funny moments as a green junior military counsel.

Otherwise, this is the second anonymous job for Franklin after the white-bread soap opera of One True Thing (an unfortunately ironic title for a director who made his name with One False Move). It's hard to see Franklin's fingerprints on the material. It's as if he directed with his gloves on.

High Crimes

Starring Ashley Judd, Morgan Freeman and Jim Caviezel

Directed by Carl Franklin

Rated PG-13 for violence, sexual content and language

Released by 20th Century Fox

Running time 115 minutes

Sun score: **

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