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TRUE CRIME(director: Clint Eastwood; screenwriters: Larry Gross/Paul Brickman/ Stephen Schiff/based on the novel by Andrew Klavan; cinematographer: Jack N. Green; editor: Joel Cox; cast: Clint Eastwood (Steve Everett), Isaiah Washington (Frank Beachum), Denis Leary (Bob Findley), Lisa Gay Hamilton (Mrs. Beachum), James Woods (Alan Mann), Diane Venora (Barbara Everett), Francesca Fisher-Eastwood (Kate Everett-Clint’s real daughter), Laila Robins (Patricia Findley), Hattie Winston (Mrs. Russell), Bernard Hill (Warden), Mary McCormack (Michelle), Michael McKean (Reverend Shillerman), Michael Jeter (Dale Porterhouse); Runtime: 127; Warner Brothers; 1999)
“Hard to swallow.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Clint continues to make films with intelligent messages but this one was hard to swallow, it was done so cynically by the numbers. We are asked to believe that an amoral reporter who is drunk can still drive perfectly while speeding to get to the proper authority on time to stop an execution at the 11th hour, even if he initially doesn’t care about the man who is to be executed. Clint somehow reaches the good guy inside him so that he cares with 15 minutes to go. The other formula ploy, is that he suddenly finds a witness who can free the man at the last second; that is, if she can only stop hating white faces and do the right thing.

As a crime thriller, it fizzles out just as it was getting interesting. This threadbare formula story dates back to the 1930s prison films. It is a slickly told tale concerned about the amoral character Clint plays juxtaposed against the moral rectitude of a reformed criminal, the innocent black man, Frank Beachum (Washington). He’s sentenced to be executed in San Quentin for murdering a pregnant white cashier in a convenience store hold-up six-years ago.

As much as I tried to take the film’s bait, I kept tasting manipulation (or was it potato chips!). I felt uneasy watching a wrinkled-faced Clint (who is 70 now) play a charming, rascal womanizer, chasing girls in their twenties. The film tried too smugly to show how politically incorrect Clint was, and how he can be a jerk but still be an ace investigative reporter. The charm of this characterization wore out for me after one adulterous affair too many.

Steve Everett (Eastwood) is trying to score a pretty 23-year-old colleague on the Oakland Tribune in a bar, when she leaves to die in a car crash. He is asked by the paper’s chief editor (James Woods) to take over her assignment and get a prison interview she was promised and attend the execution which is in less than 24 hours, and write a simple human interest piece about the condemned man. Steve was once a top investigative reporter but has gotten nearly blackballed from the industry because he can’t follow orders, which got him removed from a prestigious New York paper and started his decline into working for less sophisticated publications in smaller markets. He also had a drinking problem, though now he’s supposedly on the wagon. If there weren’t enough obstacles placed in Steve’s way to save the condemned man there’s one more in the form of his editor, Bob Findly (Leary), who hates his guts and tries to get him fired. It turns out that Bob not only has a personality conflict with Steve, but he knows that he is having an affair with his attractive young wife (Robins). Leary’s role is the film’s heavy, spending his time staring at Clint with an evil eye and downgrading his work to the top editor.

To add some more complications to Steve’s race-against-the-clock, his wife forces him to take his neglected daughter to the zoo. With a little more than twelve hours before the execution, Steve’s nose tells him the man is innocent. The question becomes: Will he rescue the innocent man in time? What will his wife do when Bob calls to tell her that her husband is having an affair with his wife? Will the newspaper editors allow him the freedom to do the story the way he wants to?

For all its faults, Clint still knows how to shoot a well-crafted film; it kept me awake throughout. The film sparkles with touches here and there, with Clint having fun with his amoral image and unlikely hero role. The belabored point made is that one can be very lonely when not finding love, even if sexually active. A man facing an execution who has the love of his family, could be more free than a man on the outside who can’t control his selfish desires and disregards his family responsibilities. The way I see it, this is a Western Union film…delivering its conventional goody-goody message by using a wrongly convicted man in a manipulative way to cheaply score all its obvious points. For me, that was the True Crime.

REVIEWED ON 12/29/2000 GRADE: C +

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”