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With: Ashley Judd, Morgan Freeman, Jim Caviezel, Amanda Peet, Adam Scott, Bruce Davison, Tom Bower, Juan Carlos Hernandez, Michael Gaston, Jude Ciccolella, Michael Shannon, Dendrie Taylor, Paula Jai Parker, John Apicella
Written by: Yuri Zeltser, Cary Bickley, based on the novel by Joseph Finder
Directed by: Carl Franklin
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence, sexual content and language
Running Time: 115
Date: 04/03/2002
IMDB

High Crimes (2002)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

The Brig Picture

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Just one week after the release of David Fincher's Panic Room, we have another thriller made from a routine script but saved by a talented director. A graduate from the Roger Corman school of filmmaking (like Francis Ford Coppola and James Cameron before him), Carl Franklin established himself with the incredible 1992 crime thriller One False Move. He followed up with a slick, smart adaptation of Walter Mosely's detective story Devil in a Blue Dress (1995), which gave Denzel Washington his best role to date and singled out Don Cheadle as a character actor to watch. For his last film, Franklin look a huge sideways leap and dove into the "weepie" genre with One True Thing (1998), starring Meryl Streep, William Hurt and Renee Zellweger. Again, he exceeded expectations and delivered a solid, respectable picture (and Streep earned yet another Oscar nomination).

I was excited to see Franklin return to the crime genre with High Crimes. In the film, Ashley Judd stars as Claire, a slick lawyer on the verge of being made partner in her San Francisco law firm. She's married to a handsome fellow named Tom (Jim Caviezel), lives in what has to be a multi-million dollar home in Marin and hopes to get pregnant soon. But things suddenly turn sour when Tom is arrested just outside Union Square and taken into military custody. See, he was once a Marine who was accused of killing nine civilians in El Salvador back in the late '80s. And his real name is Ronald Chapman. Claire is understandably distraught. Even more so when she meets Ronald's military-appointed lawyer, a greenhorn lieutenant named Embry (Adam Scott), who has never won a case. She decides to take on the case herself, enlisting the help of Charlie Grimes (Morgan Freeman), a reluctant, lazy, former Navy JAG and a recovering alcoholic who watches too much TV. Looks can be deceiving, though; Grimes is supposed to be the best. ("I love being the wild card," he says after a rousing day in court.) The ragtag team is rounded out by Claire's deadbeat sister Jackie (Amanda Peet), who has been evicted from her apartment and enjoys flirting with Lt. Embry.

Already we can see a number of plot holes. First and foremost, if this whole operation is a military cover-up (high-ranking brass are actually responsible for the massacre) then why drag it out into the light again? Plus, the film serves up a horror-movie twist at the end that defies all logic. But Franklin is at his best when dealing with strong, motivated characters, and he manages to fill a few of these holes with his steady hand. Freeman alone might be credited with saving the movie in another of his endearing mentor roles, with a gold hoop earring and whipped-up hair -- and a willingness to fall off the wagon if it'll get a potential witness to talk. Judd, who re-teams with Freeman after their 1997 Kiss the Girls success, should not be underestimated, either. She gives a sturdy performance as a workaholic with short hair molded into stiff spikes. She's on and in business mode most of the time, but she allows herself a few quiet moments here and there to shut her eyes and decompress. And even Lt. Embry, who in a lesser movie would have been the butt of an endless string of "rookie" jokes, turns into a creditable character. Our enjoyment of High Crimes depends entirely on how much we identify with these characters -- our immersion in their lives is precisely what carries us over the large and unsightly wrinkles in the script. Come to think of it, aside from the overdone abduction scene in Union Square, a car crash and the climactic chase/fight scene, most of High Crimes comes from characters' intelligent interactions, and those sections are what we come away with when the movie ends -- not the so-called "thrills." Credit that to a fine director and storyteller.

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