Joseph Finder's 1998 novel High Crimes reads like a movie, and a derivative one at that, borrowing scenes and elements from the likes of Sleeping with the Enemy, Primal Fear, and especially A Few Good Men. It piles on several ludicrous twists all at once for the finale, and throws in a few gratuitous Pepsi product placements for good measure. It seems a shame to blame the big-screen adaptation for faults inherent in the source material, when director Carl Franklin (Devil in a Blue Dress) clearly tries hard to get around them. But despite monkeying around substantially with the story, the film falls into the same trap as the book: a moderately interesting setup ultimately undone by an ending that makes the audience feel like fools for investing any sympathy with the characters. In the movie's case, we even get a setup for a sequel.
Maybe it's time to blame Ashley Judd. For some reason, audiences seem inclined to like her and keep coming back to see her movies, even though, with the exception of Michael Mann's Heat, they all fall into the category of either cloying romance (Where the Heart Is, Someone Like You) or mediocre girl-power thriller (Double Jeopardy, Kiss the Girls). The title High Crimes should tell you which this is. Ashley's not a bad actress, exactly; she just doesn't seem to aspire to being a good one.
The basic plot points of the novel remain the same, though virtually every scene has been rewritten and characters have been deleted or been replaced by new ones. Judd is Claire Kubik, a successful attorney who just got a mistrial declared on behalf of her current client, a nasty rapist (she gets him completely acquitted in the book, but sympathy is everything in Hollywood). Since her daughter from the novel has been written out, she's desperately trying to conceive a child with studly husband Tom (Jim Caviezel), until the day he's suddenly jumped by federal agents, and she's informed he's actually Ron Chapman, a military veteran accused of murdering nine victims (down from 87 in the book -- there's that sympathy thing again) in Central America. He cops to the identity fraud, but insists he didn't do the killing; it's a frame-up to protect the favorite henchman of a powerful general (Bruce Davison).
Franklin and screenwriters Yuri Zeltser and Cary Bickley seem unconcerned with the book's mystery angle and opt to unveil the villainy of the general and his henchman from the very beginning. It's as though they don't have faith in the audience to follow a thriller unless we know who the baddie is right away; reveal clues too slowly, and the morons in the crowd might call the movie boring. But their next step is an even more misguided one: Carl Grimes, the ex-Army attorney with a grudge who helps Claire defend her husband in military court, is played by Morgan Freeman. That wouldn't be a bad thing if the filmmakers went by the book: Grimes is the sort of crusty veteran with a good heart Freeman can play to perfection while sleepwalking. But the filmmakers had to turn the character into a funny drunk who loves his dog, rides a Harley, and hangs out with strippers. Maybe they persuaded Freeman that playing disreputable cleared a path to the Oscar. But saddled with silly baggage, the character makes no sense as a bitter military vet, and Freeman, for once in his life, plays inherently likable and completely unbelievable.
Other changes are more logical. The novel's you-can't-handle-the-truth! moment has thankfully been excised (as have the Pepsi plugs, surprisingly), and Claire's sister Jackie (Amanda Peet) has been rendered quirky comic relief. (Peet shows more aptitude for comedy here than in ostensibly funny movies such as Whipped.) The book's leftist politics have been toned down (or is that dumbed down?); the original conspiracy implicated Reagan and the Contras, while the film's involves terrorists and El Salvador. And most key action sequences have been substantially rewritten to better surprise the audience. Unfortunately, the character deletions and amalgamations seem to have been done with little care and thought, so that people we never knew existed suddenly show up for key scenes and then disappear.
And the problematic ending remains: You see it coming, but then you don't get to see it at all when a climactic fight scene is shot so murkily we don't know who's who until it's over. Till then, the movie is an enjoyable, if periodically misfiring, waste of time. The finale renders it merely a waste.
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