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"HIGH CRIMES"
(2002) (Ashley Judd, Morgan Freeman) (PG-13)

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QUICK TAKE:
Drama/Suspense: Upon discovering that her husband is really a former military operative who's been on the run from the government for more than a decade for murderous acts he claims he didn't commit, a civilian lawyer sets out to defend him in a military court.
PLOT:
Claire Kubik (ASHLEY JUDD) is a successful and highly regarded defense attorney at a top San Francisco firm where she's likely to become partner. Happily married to Tom (JIM CAVIEZEL) who works from a studio behind their Marin County home, Claire couldn't be happier and is trying to get pregnant.

Yet, after a break-in at their house results in various fingerprints being run, police and FBI agents suddenly swoop in and arrest Tom. It seems they believe him to be Ron Chapman, a former covert military operative who's been on the run for 12 years after murdering innocent El Salvadorian villagers during a raid. While Tom admits that he really is Chapman, he denies any wrongdoing and states that the real killer was his commanding officer, Major Hernandez (JUAN CARLOS HERNANDEZ), who was operating under orders by then Colonel William Marks (BRUCE DAVISON) who's now a general.

Not surprisingly, Claire can't believe any of this is happening. After learning that Tom's young defense counselor, Lieutenant Terrence Embry (ADAM SCOTT), has never won a case, and is going up against seasoned military prosecutor Major Waldron (MICHAEL GASTON) where the stakes are Tom's life, Claire decides to step in and represent her husband.

Yet, she needs help from someone who knows the system and thus enlists the aid of Charlie Grimes (MORGAN FREEMAN), a former military attorney and recovering alcoholic who was kicked out for having an affair with his superior officer's wife. A self-described wild card, Charlie is determined to help Claire in various unorthodox ways and thus get back at the system that spurned him.

With her somewhat wild sister, Jackie (AMANDA PEET), showing up and becoming involved with Embry, Claire then sets out to battle her self-doubts about Tom as well as the military, its court system and others who seem determined to prevent her from succeeding any way they can.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
Former Beatle John Lennon once said, "Life is what happens while you're making other plans." While he obviously didn't realize the irony in that in regards to what would happen to him and Yoko Ono not long after making that statement, it couldn't be truer. Unexpected occurrences, developments and revelations often change and/or shatter people's lives - sometimes irrevocably - and force them to deal with the repercussions in ways they probably never imagined they could or would have to.

Of course, it usually seems to happen when things are most idyllic, when life seems to be moving along perfectly. Then, out of the blue, something happens that upsets the applecart. Beyond illness, death or accidents, that often involves a revelation about one's significant other, be it tax evasion, a secret child from a previous relationship, discovery or announcement of an affair, or the revelation that one's partner was once a man, woman or both.

For Claire Kubik, such a discovery isn't of that tabloid TV caliber, but it's just as devastating. You see, the Marin County lawyer has just discovered that her loving husband was really a covert military operative who's been on the run from the government for more than a decade and is blamed for a massacre of innocent Central Americans.

While that's obviously not as likely to occur in real life as the affair issue, it's the premise of "High Crimes," the latest film from director Carl Franklin who previously helmed "One True Thing" and "Devil in a Blue Dress." Based on novelist Joseph Finder's 1998 novel of the same name, the film is a mediocre dramatic thriller that might appease less discerning viewers, but it undermined by various contrivances and unbelievable moments scattered throughout it.

Adapted to the big screen by husband and wife screenwriters Yuri Zeltser & Cary Bickley ("Black and White," "Eye of the Storm") and marking the reunion of stars Ashley Judd and Morgan Freeman who first appeared together in the hit "Kiss the Girls," the film plays off the standard David and Goliath plot where the little guy - or woman in this case - must battle the establishment in order to save her husband.

The first hurdle the film must hop is in making the viewer buy into the setup. While some won't have any problem in that regard, others might have a hard time believing that Judd is a lawyer (she feels like an actress playing one rather than the real thing), that her husband has a secret past (an intelligent lawyer probably wouldn't have been so in the dark about him) and/or that the military wouldn't want to dredge up this ugly affair (seeing how it wants to quell it once it has) or wouldn't have already tracked down the missing soldier (considering the elaborate lengths to which they go to stymie the wife's efforts).

In short, the setup and most everything that follows feel contrived, almost as if a screenwriting program generated the various plot developments and obstacles without realizing that most humans wouldn't completely buy into what's offered.

That's particularly true in regards to the "surprise" ending that isn't terribly surprising and feels about as forced and artificial as they come. To make matters worse, the plot leading up to it might seem complicated and multi-layered, but in reality, it's not. Instead, it's plagued by various lapses in logic and too many lame moments borrowed and previously seen in other films.

What makes the film work and be relatively easy to watch - at least to some degree regarding both points - are the performances and chemistry between the leads. Although she's played this sort of role enough times now that she could probably sleepwalk through what's offered here, Ashley Judd ("Someone Like You," "Where the Heart Is") is engaging in her part, even if it's not entirely believable and certainly not very well developed.

The character that's the most fun to watch is the one played by Morgan Freeman ("Along Came a Spider," "Nurse Betty"). A rascally wild card - a self-description said with an overabundant and mischievous glint in the eyes - his character is yet another complete contrivance. That said, at least it's a charismatic and engaging one to watch.

While the husband/soldier on the run character might be of just supporting status, it's pivotal for the film's tone and how things play out, much like Jeff Bridges' character in "Jagged Edge" (where we didn't know until the end whether he was the murderer or not). Unfortunately, Jim Caviezel's ("The Count of Monte Cristo," "Angel Eyes") performance isn't as mesmerizing or entertaining, and in the end we don't really care much about his fate, innocence or guilt (although the filmmakers are to blame as much as the actor for that). All of which is a major flaw since that's a large part of what drives the viewer's interest regarding the story.

As supporting characters, Amanda Peet ("Saving Silverman," "Whipped") and Adam Scott ("Star Trek: First Contact," "Hellraiser IV") are decent, but the likes of Bruce Davison ("Summer Catch," "crazy/beautiful"), Juan Carlos Hernandez ("Rum and Coke," HBO's "Oz") and Michael Gaston ("Thirteen Days," "Double Jeopardy") can't do much with their thinly drawn, antagonistic military characters.

Despite an intriguing premise, the decent inclusion of humor and comic relief, and some engaging performances, the film is undermined by too many problems - contrivances, recycled suspense/thriller elements, some bad/rough editing, etc. - to be considered in the same league as other military courtroom dramas such as "A Few Good Men."

In the end, "High Crimes" is the sort of picture where it's best to sit back and leave only enough of your brain on to follow the plot that ultimately turns out not to be as complicated as it initially seems. The film rates as a 5 out of 10.




Reviewed April 4, 2002 / Posted April 5, 2002


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