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HIGH CRIMES(director: Carl Franklin; screenwriters: Yuri Zeltser/Cary Bickley, based on the novel by Joseph Finder; cinematographer: Theo Van de Sande; editor: Carole Kravetz-Aykanian; music: Graeme Revell; cast: Ashley Judd (Claire Kubik), Morgan Freeman (Charlie Grimes), Jim Caviezel (Tom Kubik/Ron Chapman), Adam Scott (Lt. Embry), Juan Carlos Hernández (Major Jimmy Hernandez), Amanda Peet (Jackie), Bruce Davison (Brigadier General Marks), Jude Ciccolella (Col. Farrell), Michael Gaston (Major Waldron), Tom Bower (F.B.I. Agent Mullins), Emilio Rivera (Salvadoran Man), Michael Shannon (Abbott); Runtime: 115; 20th Century Fox and Regency Enterprises; 2002)
“Whenever a couple in a Hollywood film is so happy early on, it is predictable a reversal of fortunes is soon to happen.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

“High Crimes” is about a covert military operation. This entertaining but manipulative commercial film opens by showing a massacre of nine innocent peasants from a village in El Salvador in 1988 by undisclosed Marines. It was a botched Marine operation in an attempt to get a rebel terrorist who supposedly killed three Americans in a café bombing. It features Ashley Judd in a ‘Woman in Peril’ flick, as she puts her life on the line to save her mysterious hubby.

The story focuses on the ambitious San Francisco criminal lawyer Claire Kubik (Ashley Judd), who just got her rapist client a new trial on an appeal and therefore has immediately lost a segment of the audience’s sympathy. For that clever work she’s about to be offered a law partnership that she thirsts after and, on top of that, she’s elated that she has become pregnant. Her husband Tom Kubik (Jim Caviezel) seems strangely intense but her marriage is a blissful one.

Whenever a couple in a Hollywood film is so happy early on, it is predictable a reversal of fortunes is soon to happen. That reversal happens when vandals break into their luxurious residence and the cops take fingerprints. They discover Tom is Ron Chapman, a Marine fugitive wanted for the mass murder in El Salvador. The Marine Corps have statements from seven other soldiers that they witnessed Ron commit the murders. In a street raid, the F.B.I. forcefully arrests Ron while he is Christmas shopping with Claire.

Claire is not satisfied with the inexperienced and nervous military lawyer assigned the case, Lt. Embry (Adam Scott), and decides to defend her husband. Because she’s unfamiliar with military law procedures she recruits a former military lawyer named Charlie Grimes (Morgan Freeman) with the reputation of being a pain to the military. He is a recovering alcoholic now on the wagon, and plays as the wildcard member of the trio. Charlie now ekes out a living by defending down-and-out prostitutes and this case is his chance to resurrect his career. He’s playing the Paul Newman part in “The Verdict.”

The low-key and naive Embry (nicknamed Embryo by Charlie) and Grimes are both likable characters and win the viewer back over to Claire’s side, since the audience is led to believe that her husband is innocent: they see the unfair trial judge, Colonel Farrell (Jude Ciccolella), prevent them from presenting evidence that her hubby was framed; the heavy-handed prosecutor Major Waldron (Michael Gaston) presents false witness reports; and the film’s heavy, Major Hernandez (Juan Carlos Hernández), has a personal vendetta against Ron.

There will be a series of mysterious attacks on Claire and on Charlie as they continue to snoop into the military part of the Central American village raid and they start to unravel that a cover-up reached the top military brass. Claire’s house phone is bugged and she’s attacked at least three times. In one attack she will receive a mean-looking shiner. Charlie wears facial bandages from one vicious beating outside a military club and later sports a cervical collar. Claire’s ditzy sister Jackie (Amanda Peet) in one assault is gagged with duct tape.

Jackie, in a minor role, is around for some character infusion and light comedy and romance. She moves in with Claire at her rented furnished home near the Marine base, and acts in all of the following ways: cute, obnoxious, garrulous, sexy, and irresponsible. Since Jackie’s the failure of the family when compared to her tough-minded success story sister, she takes pride that she nevertheless gets to bang a lawyer — Embry. Meanwhile her responsible sister is busy gathering evidence of a military cover-up involving a smug general who was then in charge of the botched Salvadorian escapade, General Marks (Bruce Davison).

Carl Franklin (One False Move/Devil in the Blue Dress) has proven himself to be a first-class director. In this his fourth film, he comes up with not one of his better efforts. It was directed with too many contrivances and it relies on a ludicrous plot twist at the film’s end, which takes away any credibility the story might have had until that point. Yet the surprise plot twist was well-acted and at least kept the film suspenseful.

This is an actor’s film. Morgan Freeman can’t give a bad performance, and here he gives the film strength and class. Ashley Judd makes her unflappable and brusque lawyer role into a hearty action role, as she becomes vulnerable in her high heels while she’s willing to put herself in dangerous positions to defend her hubby. Her endearing quality is that she is convincingly able to stop being gruff in her love life. Mr. Freeman and Ms. Judd have worked together before in “Kiss the Girls” and have a good onscreen chemistry together.

There’s not much that means much in this thriller, but it takes a half-hearted stab at dealing with deeper human emotions, searching for the truth, the psychological stability of our military leaders, and the integrity of a military tribunal. There’s not much to take away from this film as written by Yuri Zeltser and Cary Bickley, who were working from Joseph Finder’s novel. But, nevertheless, to their credit, they did not make the characters mushy.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”