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High Crimes   B-

20th Century Fox

Year Released: 2002
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Carl Franklin
Writers: Yuri Zeltser, Cary Bickley (based on the novel by Joseph Finder)
Cast: Ashley Judd, Morgan Freeman, Jim Caviezel, Amanda Peet, Tom Bower, Bruce Davison.

Review by Rob Vaux

Oh, it's time for another fair-to-middling Morgan Freeman thriller. We were just about due. Since delivering the best performance of his career in Seven, Freeman seems to have settled in to a nice, predictable routine of crime dramas. They make him look sharp, and he doesn't have to work hard to come out smelling like a rose. Never mind that most of them are at best mildly entertaining and at worst eminently forgettable. At least the latest go 'round, High Crimes, works better than most. Freeman doesn't have to carry this one alone: he gets lots of help from director Carl Franklin, who knows his way around suspense, and co-star Ashley Judd, whose on-screen chemistry with Freeman was the only memorable thing about Kiss the Girls. Their combined efforts help make High Crimes consistently entertaining, if not quite great.

Judd plays Claire Kubik, the sort of type-A character that I suspect is a thinly veiled version of the actress herself. She works as a defense lawyer in the oh-so-cinematic San Francisco, and has a cute and perky demeanor that smoothes over her aggressive edges. The rest of her life is pretty cute and perky as well. Her husband (Jim Caviezel)? Cute and perky. Co-workers? Cute and perky. Sister? Amanda Peet, whose level of cute perkiness is illegal in most southern states. Kubik's life becomes considerably less perky, however, when the FBI nabs her hubby during a picturesque Christmas shopping trip. As it turns out, he's been living a lie for the past 12 years. He once belonged to a Special Forces unit that did some Very Bad Things in Central America, and now the piper must be paid. Claire is aghast at the charges. Surely her husband couldn't commit such heinous crimes. Surely he's the victim of a conspiracy. Her office gives her the name of a good military defender, Charlie Grimes (Freeman), who knows the ins and outs of the tribunal system. Unfortunately, he's also a drunk, and as it turns out, the perceived conspiracy is a lot more dangerous than either of them could have imagined.

High Crimes succeeds best when it follows its director's instincts. Franklin has a wonderful eye, painting his shots in dark, moody hues that make for terrific atmosphere. He also tends to push his material in unexpected directions. Grimes' alcoholism, for example, becomes the crux of some interesting moral dilemmas, and Franklin refuses to play pat with what could have been an embarrassing "stop drinking" soapbox. On the other side of the marquee, Judd finds potent ground as a cocky attorney facing a system that plays by different rules. Her angry confusion at military procedure -- and the way Freeman coyly plays off of it -- gives High Crimes its strongest moments. The two stars are always fun, and their rapport makes you wish they could get together on-screen more often.

The film also earns inadvertent kudos by questioning the validity of military justice just when such tribunals are making national news. I'm not sure the iconoclasm was deliberate, but in an increasingly sensitive climate, it's admirable to see High Crimes question -- however unintentionally -- an apparatus that the government wants us to blindly accept.

Unfortunately, such quality comes in the midst of some decidedly unimpressive elements. The structure of the story becomes increasingly repetitive, as Judd and Freeman try to deduce the facts while dodging a series of would-be threats. Franklin's atmosphere makes up for the worst of them but it's hard not to notice the tired routine at their core. The plot grows unconscionably muddled at times, and though the action stays clear, the reasons behind the conspiracy don't. We're never sure what exactly happened in Central America all those years ago, although the film purports to tell us straight. Mystery is a good thing. Confusion isn't, and High Crimes can't always tell the difference between the two. Finally, Franklin can't always resist falling back on genre clichés, and the climax flirts disastrously with the old "killer in the house" bit that only about a zillion movies have pulled off before.

Thankfully, none of it ever derails the film, or unseats the better angels of its nature. High Crimes won't be more than a blip on the cinematic radar, but it remains engaging from start to finish. Memorable films will have to wait; this one, at least, can justify eight bucks and two hours or your life. High Crimes goes a long way on old-fashioned star power mixed with a few new twists. Luckily, it doesn't have to go any further.

Review published 04.05.2002.

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