Anchor Bay // 2009 // 105 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // December 22nd, 2009
Why would a man frame himself...for murder?
The American judicial system is ripe for cinematic treatment, since it's basically two groups trying to tell the judge/jury a story. The defense presents one possible set of events that explains how/why their client couldn't possibly have performed the given crime, while the prosecution tries to provide a framework where no one else but the defendant could plausibly have committed the crime. Generally, the rules we judge movies by are not terribly dissimilar from those that the jury uses: which story fits together better, which characters are more likable/believable, where's the motivation for the action? Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (Blu-ray) makes this connection explicit, by presenting a situation in which the defense tells a bogus story hoping the prosecution will do something illegal to corroborate the fake story, exposing the district attorney as a criminal himself. It's a heck of a plot with loads of potential, but it's squandered by lackluster direction and poor casting.
C.J. Nichols (Jesse Metcalf, Desperate Housewives) is an investigative reporter in Shreveport, Louisiana. He begins to suspect that the local district attorney (Michael Douglas, Wonder Boys), who has designs on the governor's mansion, has been fabricating evidence during his seventeen-win streak of murder convictions. He has the bright idea to frame himself for an otherwise unsolvable murder in the hopes that the D.A. will fabricate evidence. To ensure he's not actually found guilty of the crime, he enlists the help of his fellow journalist Cory (Joel Moore, Avatar) to film the execution of the "crime" so they can play the tape back at the trial to prove C.J.'s innocence. To further complicate things, C.J. falls in love with the assistant D.A. (Amber Tamblyn, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants), and, when the D.A. gets wind of the plan and arranges an accident for Cory and the tape, C.J. ends up in a very difficult position.
This 2009 film is an update of a 1956 Fritz Lang film, and if it's not enough of a tragedy to remake Lang as it is, the film doesn't even do an effective job bringing the premise into the twenty-first century. Let's break it down: a guy decides to frame himself for a capital offense, takes video evidence of his innocence, and then only makes two copies, both of which are in the control of a single individual. That is so staggeringly stupid that it's difficult to have any sympathy for this guy whatsoever. We're in the twenty-first century, where he could have taken five minutes to digitize the footage and placed it on a dozen secure servers so that he wouldn't end up in jail and or the electric chair. I know if he did that then "we wouldn't have a movie," but the basic premise shows a lack of attention to detail that carries through the rest of the production, from the casting to the gratuitous car chases.
I have to give some credit to Jesse Metcalf: he looks so fresh-faced and honest that it's hard not to be enthusiastic with him during the conception phases of his grand plan. He genuinely seems excited at the prospect of bringing down a corrupt administration. However, as the film goes on, he demonstrates that he just doesn't have the depth or range to really give this character his due. He's simply too likable, too traditionally good-looking to be convincing in the role. Michael Douglas similarly gets credit for bring some serious gravity to his role as the corrupt D.A., but he's on screen so rarely that he barely warrants a "supporting actor" credit. I'm not usually a fan of Joel Moore because he can get old very fast as an actor, but he was horribly underutilized here. In fact, if I were to cast Beyond a Reasonable Doubt I'd be more likely to put Moore in the C.J. role just because I think it would be a more interesting choice. Amber Tamblyn holds her own, but her role is a thankless one, there mostly for sex appeal with very little else for her to do but look good in a suit.
Did Beyond a Reasonable Doubt need a car chase? No, I don't think so. We get one anyway, and that's indicative of the kind of film that director Peter Hyams is trying to make. The premise is almost strictly an interior one, and the film would be infinitely more effective if Cory's death happened off screen. However, Hyams goes for the big, obvious explosive end for Cory which provides a workmanlike action set piece but does very little to further the film's main action. Hyams has a kind of throwback talent for action moments, but it's a poor choice to remake a Lang film as an action flick.
Beyond a Reasonable Doubt isn't a horrible movie. Sure everyone on screen is working strictly for a paycheck, but the film is perfectly watchable in a bored-late-night-cable kind of way. Catch it on HBO or something and the utter brilliance of the premise may carry you through to the (twist!) ending once. Repeat viewings are not at all recommended.
For a film that got only a tiny theatrical release, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt gets a decent presentation and a few extras. The transfer has a slight flatness to it and can be a little darker than necessary. Like the film, the transfer isn't horrible, but could be much better. The audio fares slightly better, but this is a dialogue-heavy movie, so most of the sound comes from the front. Extras include a pair of promotional pieces, one of which covers the making of the film while the other gives a short introduction to police forensics. The big extra is a track with the director and Metcalf. There's a lot of explanation of the machinations of the film's plot, but the pair spend more time backslapping than they do analyzing the film, which makes the track a sometimes troublesome listen. There's also a digital copy of the film included on a second disc.
I honestly can't recommend Beyond a Reasonable Doubt except as a rental for those who will see anything with Jesse Metcalf in it. There isn't enough of the other actors in the film to justify their fans watching this lackluster little thriller that squanders a brilliant premise on silly action moments.
Guilty, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 105 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Digital Copy