Fox // 2002 // 115 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // October 14th, 2002
"Military justice is to justice as military music is to music, Mrs. Kubik. Wake up and smell the napalm." -- C.W. Grimes
High-powered stars Ashley Judd and Morgan Freeman (Kiss the Girls) do the best they can in a film that is essentially A Few Good Men-cum-Lifetime movie-of-the-week.
Claire (Judd) and Tom Kubik (James Caviezel, Frequency) are living the good life, she a high-profile defense attorney, he a contractor with booming business, both giddily focused on kicking around their beautiful house and monitoring her ovulation so they can start making babies. Then, while Christmas shopping in Union Square, the couple gets the smackdown from a team of blue-suited FBI agents who take Tom away in 'cuffs. It seems the Feds believe Tom Kubik is actually former marine and covert military operative Ron Chapman, a man accused by the government of mercilessly gunning down a village of innocent El Salvadorans while his unit was searching for a notorious terrorist.
Sure of his innocence, be he Tom or Ron, and being the tenacious defense attorney she is, Claire decides to defend her husband before the court martial. With no experience in military courts, however, she's forced to turn to one Charlie Grimes (Freeman), attorney at law. Charlie's rocky past includes a dishonorable discharge from the Judge Advocate General Corps for diddling a fellow officer's wife, leading to years as a pathetic drunk. In his new-found sobriety, he has a civilian law practice in which he apparently spends most of his time defending prostitutes busted for diddling marines at the local base when he's not busy slouching on his spring-worn divan watching repeats of Sanford & Son.
It soon becomes clear the case is one piece of a much larger government cover-up, and Claire and Charlie find themselves battling shadowy threats and attempts on their lives as everything, including Tom/Ron's innocence, is thrown into doubt.
Grade-A thrillers don't come along often. I'd like to say director Carl Franklin (Devil in a Blue Dress) has delivered one here, but I'd be lying. If High Crimes is at all above average, it's indebted to its stars. Morgan Freeman has incredible screen presence and is worth watching in just about anything. He and Judd, teamed previously in the serial-killer flick Kiss the Girls, have genuine chemistry -- this disc's Together Again featurette is devoted to that chemistry and probably overstates things, making the duo sound like a modern-day Tracy and Hepburn (without the romance), but the fact they create a dynamic mix onscreen is not in doubt. Their performances, in many ways, save this film. Claire Kubik and Charlie Grimes are, after all, types more than characters, and fairly worn types at that. She's the aggressive, making-it-in-a-man's-world female professional who must come to terms with her own human (and specifically female) vulnerabilities. He's the humbled man, once brilliant but brought low by his peccadilloes and enslavement to the bottle. Kubik and Grimes are meant to be together because she lacks his humility and he her confidence. Together, they create something approaching a well-rounded human being. If they were Tracy and Hepburn (or Judd and, say, Harrison Ford), they'd also fall in love. Freeman and Judd play these roles as something more than types, though, and damned if you won't buy what they're selling while you watch the film. These are not performances for the ages, but they're much, much better than the material.
Don't get me wrong. In terms of the mechanics of a thriller, High Crimes isn't a disaster; it's just not top-notch. The thriller is a genre in which story and technique hold equal weight because everything rides on deceiving the audience, revealing facts at the right time and in the right way. A poor decision in camera angle or editing can consequences as dire as poorly conceived characters or ham-fisted dialogue. Take a look, for instance, at the complex series of cuts in the final minutes of Brian Singer's The Usual Suspects, how meticulously facts are doled out to us so that the film's big picture comes into focus exactly when Singer wants it to. Consider how sparingly Hitchcock doles out information in Rear Window by limiting our perspective to that of wheelchair-bound Jimmy Stewart, and how our interpretation of that information is clouded by its being filtered through a man we're not sure we can trust, a man going stir crazy and perhaps prone to flights of fancy. Think about how Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs evokes psychological terror by making us as dependent as Clarice Starling upon the psychopath Hannibal Lecter to reveal the story's mystery.
Carl Franklin succeeds through much of High Crimes in doling out facts sparingly, flavoring them generously with red herrings. The film mostly uses its multi-genre structure to perform this balancing act. It's one part murder mystery, one part courtroom procedural, one part woman in distress, one part family melodrama. Just to make things interesting, Franklin throws in the trauma of a lost pregnancy, Claire's rocky relationship with her free-spirited younger sister, Jackie (Amanda Peet, Saving Silverman), and Jackie's budding romance with the seemingly straight-arrow young 1st Lieutenant assigned as Tom/Ron's counsel, not to mention the fact that said 1st Lieutenant fraternizes with the prosecution and may or may not be leaking information. It's all fairly effective for a while. Is Tom/Ron Tom or Ron? Is he guilty or innocent? Is there a government conspiracy, and if so how high does it reach? Is Claire's aggressive advocacy for her husband admirable or simply naïve? The movie allows these questions to swirl around during its first two acts, throwing you for loops every time you think you've figured it out. The problem is that Franklin never satisfactorily resolves these multi-genre threads. The courtroom drama fizzles, the family melodrama is quickly and tidily put out of the way, and we're left in the end with a woman-in-distress finale that is predictable and clichéd. It's a shame.
Fox's DVD presents Franklin's and cinematographer Theo van de Sande's (Big Daddy) solid but workmanlike shot compositions in their original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The transfer is anamorphic and struck from a clean print. Colors are rich and black levels are solid. The transfer is marred, however, by edge enhancement throughout.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is surprisingly strong considering this is hardly an action movie. Surrounds are used fairly aggressively considering the film's genre, without being overdone. Graeme Revell's (Blow) score, in particular, benefits from the enveloping mix.
Despite the long list of extras, the disc feels fairly barebones. The best of the supplements is Franklin's feature-length commentary. He's casual, smart, and easy to listen to. The six featurettes each run between three and seven minutes in length and aren't especially informative or interesting. The best of them is probably A Different Kind of Justice, a five-minute interview with Alice Cate, an attorney who specializes in court martial cases. She gives a very brief but even-handed overview of the military justice system that's enjoyable if only for her plain-spokenness. The worst of them is A Military Mystery, a seven-minute interview with Joe Finder, the author of the book from which the film was adapted. Finder offers nothing but banal observations about his book, the film, and the process of adapting literature to the screen.
Before wrapping things up, let me say a few additional words about the performances in the film. They really are the strength of the entire affair. Along with Judd and Freeman, the supporting players do a fine job. If you're going to character your story with a neo-hippie younger sister whose dysfunction is more silly than disturbing, you can't do much better than Amanda Peet, whose energy and charm always shine through, no matter the role.
James Caviezel, though, turns in a performance as Tom/Ron that is both subtle and dynamic. Much of the work of keeping us disoriented and unsure of the truth falls on his shoulders and he handles it magnificently, making us absolutely certain he's telling the truth one moment, then undermining our confidence the next. And he does it all without upstaging the film's stars. The performance isn't at all self-conscious; he just delivers the goods.
Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd are indeed a charismatic duo. Unfortunately, High Crimes, while not horrible, is a step down from their previous paring, Kiss the Girls. Here's hoping they'll work together again in the future, this time in a project worthy of their talents and screen chemistry.
While by no means headed for enshrinement in the canon of classic film thrillers, High Crimes is worth 115 minutes of your time for its mostly strong plot-twists and for the engaging performances of its actors.
Though weak on supplements, Fox has given the film a strong presentation on DVD. In the end, isn't that the most important thing?
All parties are found not guilty. Court is in recess.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 115 Minutes
Release Year: 2002
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Commentary by Director Carl Franklin
* Six Featurettes: A Military Mystery, FBI Takedown in Union Square, A Different Kind of Justice, Liar Liar: How to Beat a Polygraph, The Car Crash, Together Again
* Theatrical Trailer
* Official Site