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'High Crimes'

'High Crimes' throws a lot of elements into the courtroom

Friday, April 05, 2002

By Ron Weiskind Post-Gazette Movie Editor

"High Crimes" is one of those movies in which something is always happening, to the point where it threatens to become too much of a good thing.

'High Crimes'

RATING: PG-13 for violence, sexual content and language.

STARRING: Ashley Judd, Morgan Freeman, Jim Caviezel.

DIRECTOR: Carl Franklin.

WEB SITE: www.highcrimesmovie.com



Director Carl Franklin ("Devil in a Blue Dress") introduces his characters with dispatch in a series of short, brisk scenes in which the action is more important than the dialogue. The dynamic will reverse as the movie progresses and the characters must air their personal demons while they try to discover the truth about a brutal incident that took place years before.

Claire Kubik (Ashley Judd), a rising criminal defense attorney, lives a happy life in the San Francisco area with her husband, Tom (Jim Caviezel). But one afternoon, FBI agents abruptly arrest Tom and charge him with the murder of civilians in El Salvador during the 1980s, when he was a member of a covert military squad.

His real name, Claire learns with a shock, is Ronald Chapman. Claire believes his claim of innocence but doesn't know what else to think.

Naturally, she decides to defend her husband before a military court -- especially after it assigns a wet-behind-the-ears lieutenant (Adam Scott) to be his advocate. But she also knows she needs help, so she digs up Charlie Grimes (Morgan Freeman), who runs a one-man office out of a rundown house and takes the case only out of spite toward the military, for which he used to practice law. She characterizes him as her wild card, not knowing just how unpredictable he can be.

Thus, the stage is set for a courtroom battle royal promising more than a little character-based drama. But Franklin and screenwriters Yuri Zeltser and Cary Bickley up the ante by throwing in all kinds of extra elements: Claire's trashy sister, Jackie (Amanda Peet), an embarrassment who can't understand why Claire is embarrassed by her; Charlie's female friend, a practitioner of the oldest profession (no, she isn't a lawyer, but some characters in the movie wouldn't make the distinction); sinister strangers and accusations of cover-ups reaching to the highest levels of the military; accidents that really aren't.

It helps to concentrate on the main characters, although that won't necessarily keep you from falling for the red herrings strewn throughout the film. Judd gives one of her best performances as a strong, forceful woman who feels helpless within, her bluster a mask for her vulnerability.

Freeman, with whom she worked in "Kiss the Girls," plays a character whose various flaws are a bit of a screenwriter's calculation. But some of the best scenes in the movie involve Charlie facing up to Claire for his shortcomings. And his unflappability, even in the face of looming disaster, helps keep her grounded. Caviezel is, well, less in a daze than usual.

The plot keeps threatening to crumble under the weight of inconsistencies. If the military is so determined to keep the truth under wraps, why did it decide to arrest and try Ronald Chapman in the first place? The heavy-handed attempts to intimidate or injure Claire Kubik make no sense except in the context of a Hollywood script -- it could be done in more effective and less obvious ways. And if you pay enough attention, you can see where the whole thing is going to end up.

But Franklin is a good enough director, and enjoys a capable enough cast, that "High Crimes" comes off as both watchable and, to the degree that it succumbs to its own excess, frustrating.

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