U.S. Release Date:
April 5, 2002
Director: Carl Franklin
Producer: Arnon Milchan
Composer: Graeme Revell
Cast: Ashley Judd, Morgan Freeman, James Caviezel, Amanda Peet, Adam Scott
Running Time: 1 hour and 55 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (violence, sexual content and language)
Moviegoers might be expecting High Crimes to be the type of taut thriller for which steely Ashley Judd and the always commanding Morgan Freeman have become known. Unfortunately, High Crimes, directed by Carl Franklin, is a very troubled film.
This mess of a movie—part A Few Good Men, part John Grisham—is neither Mr. Freeman's nor Ms. Judd's fault, though there's more to say about Ms. Judd's role later. High Crimes's primary problem is the script, which features more subplots than an ER episode and never really makes sense.
Ms. Judd plays high-powered, criminal defense lawyer Claire Kubik, who knows how to win a case with her shrewd sense of timing. Claire's perfect Bay Area life, which includes a marriage to the supposedly perfect husband (Tom, played by James Caviezel, the son in Frequency), is filled with cell phones, her Mercedes SUV and trying to have a baby. Just so we know the Kubiks are not consumed by keeping up appearances, the couple also shoots pool in blue jeans.
The perfect life is suddenly interrupted in a noisy scene that plays like the seizure of Elian Gonzalez; that's when Claire learns her husband is not quite who he seems—that such a smart woman would fail to notice her husband holding back is wholly implausible. By this early stage, the clues have been dropped with the subtlety of an episode of Mannix, which may owe to director Franklin's acting credits on 70s TV classics Cannon, The White Shadow and Streets of San Francisco. Franklin's sense of television topicality served the director well in his intimate Meryl Streep cancer drama, One True Thing, and it lends High Crimes several genuine moments. Early scenes—including one showing San Francisco going from day to night—and the score evoke a jazzy noir feel that disappears without a trace.
Mr. Freeman's character is a down and out lawyer (you can tell by his name, Charlie Grimes), who once took on the military bureaucracy that is now after Claire's husband, whose participation in a Central American military raid has caught up with him. As the story shifts to his trial, Claire and Charlie (and scene stealing Adam Scott as a clean-cut Marine) team for a motley defense.
The accused husband has something to do with a massacre in El Salvador that's virtually indecipherable.
It's here that High Crimes loses focus, getting lost in subplots. There's a romance between polar opposites—which offers the movie's humor—a pregnancy, alcoholism, the whisper of past case gone wrong, a mysterious Salvadoran, conspiracies—even a hooker with a heart of gold and a crusty old dog. It's all too much and, by the time you sort out, you'll be too exhausted to care about the fate of Claire's husband and marriage.
As Charlie and Claire battle the white male establishment for the sake of Claire's husband, and alcoholic Charlie's redemption, the central conflict unfolds by pure formula, with the requisite evil military authority—the oldest Hollywood shtick since the evil businessman—at center stage. The plot twists and twirls, deteriorating into a horror film with loud bursts that seem intended to awaken interest, and High Crimes finally emerges with an anti-climax.
James Caviezel's snake of a husband is never convincing as having any but the most sinister motives. The editing is especially sloppy—a law enforcement scene shows a portrait of Bill Clinton as president.
It's a particularly disappointing reunion for Ms. Judd and Mr. Freeman, two promising actors. Mr. Freeman's status as a top actor remains intact. Ms. Judd has real skill—she was triumphant and real in Where the Heart Is—that awaits the right director.
Ms. Judd's career will survive High Crimes, though her Double Jeopardy/Kiss the Girls (also with Mr. Freeman) routine is tired; a real heroine requires something deeper than just being battered.
Ms. Judd's familiar drill—superwoman turned victim turned less superwoman—means constantly be taken down a notch and watching her get beaten to a pulp in film after film underscores the deficit in Hollywood ideas. Characters like Claire Kubik are the dominant female prototype in today's films: hard, resolved and as deep as a piece of paper. Considering the talent available in this film, such hollowness is the highest crime of all.
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