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Under Suspicion   B

Lions Gate Films

Year Released: 2000
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Stephen Hopkins
Writers: Tom Provost, W. Peter Iliff
Cast: Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, Thomas Jane, Monica Bellucci.

Review by Rob Vaux

Under Suspicion works less as an absorbing story than an absorbing work of craftsmanship. A thriller in the spirit of Sleuth and The Usual Suspects, it depends mainly on the talents of its actors, who spend the entire film locked in a room and trading verbal barbs with each other. It's lucky enough to have two of the best in the leads -- Morgan Freeman and Gene Hackman -- who apparently picked the project for the juicy roles it gave them (both serve as executive producers as well as stars). The result, while not mind-blowing, has a comfortable pedigree that makes for engaging entertainment.

The actors worked well together as adversaries in Unforgiven, and Under Suspicion makes potent use of their chemistry. Freeman plays Victor Benezet, a police captain in San Juan, Puerto Rico with a potential serial killer on his hands. Two little girls have been murdered, and strong circumstantial evidence points to rich tax attorney Henry Hearst (Hackman), a vain but aging staple of the island's social scene. He likes his women young (his catty wife, played by Monica Bellucci is some 30 years his junior), and several witnesses have placed him uncomfortably close to the crime scenes. Benezet and Hearst have a past history, so the detective is able to bring his suspect in "just to answer a few questions." What starts as a ten-minute interview, however, quickly degenerates into an intense interrogation; Hearst is clearly hiding something, and Benezet and his pit-bull sergeant (Thomas Jane) won't rest until they've dragged it from him. But is he guilty of murder, as they believe, or is it something else -- something he doesn't want prying eyes to see?

The scenario gives the stars plenty of opportunities to bounce off each other. Freeman's character is similar to his Detective Somerset in Seven, sifting through the facts with clinical precision. Hackman is all smarm and bravado: a powerful man unused to being questioned. Under Suspicion is strongest when it leaves them alone to tear into each other. Their psychological sparring match grows in intensity as the film goes on, and with little to distract us from the performances (aside from creditable supporting efforts by Jane and Bellucci), we become emotionally attached to their predicament almost by default.

Director Stephen Hopkins is canny enough to stay out of the way, though he manages to add a few flourishes of his own. The action is essentially limited to two rooms in the police station: Hopkins spices it up with some innovative flashbacks, as Hackman recalls the events surrounding the killings. His listeners appear at the scene as he describes them, asking questions and examining evidence as if they were there. While a bit stagy and overly cinematic, it contributes a great deal to the overall mood. The suspense ratchets up every time we leave the police station, knowing that some new revelation may appear amid the grisly details.

If Under Suspicion has a failing, it's that all of the polish sometimes detracts from the story. At times, it focuses so much on the cat-and-mouse game that we see only mechanics, not the humanity behind them. The murder mystery has some very disturbing implications -- that pedophilia may be more prevalent than people believe, for example -- which it never properly confronts, content instead to simply rest on its laurels. It's still strong, but nothing that resonates the way truly great thrillers do.

Its relative lack of ambition, however, doesn't detract from an otherwise solid piece of filmmaking. Under Suspicion has a keen understanding of its assets, and is smart enough not to get tangled up in them. Thanks mainly to its stars and a director who knows how to make the most of them, it fulfills the potential of an intriguing and thought-provoking premise. Such craftsmanship may not win any awards, but always gives us something interesting to watch.

Review published 09.29.2000.

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