Mill Creek Entertainment // 1989 // 113 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Jake Ware (Retired) // June 30th, 2011
"If you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes into you." -- Friedrich Nietzsche
OK, so it might be a little rich quoting Nietzsche in relation to an '80s prison exploitation film, but there is a little more to An Innocent Man than you might expect judging from the genre that spawned it.
Tom Selleck plays a star engineer, perfect husband, and all round nice guy. He's the kind of guy that your mother would love. But his perfect world comes crashing down around him when two rogue cops with a taste for dirty money and hard drugs frame him in an attempt to cover up a drug bust gone bad. Despite many protestations of moral indignation, Selleck gets caught up in a system that does not protect him and finds himself in jail, doing hard time with some pretty tough cons.
Anyone below a certain age would be excused for not knowing just how big a deal Tom Selleck, and his moustache, were back in the '80s. Well, here's the skinny: he was big. No, scrap that. He was huge. Magnum P.I., arguably the best TV detective show of the era, made Selleck a star. Throughout the '80s, he flirted with transferring that success to the big screen via efforts like the so-so High Road To China and the pretty good Runaway. He finally hit paydirt with the massively successful Three Men And A Baby. Selleck followed up this success with the far less successful, but rather interesting, An Innocent Man, a film that tried to be two things at the same time and in the end failed to distinguish itself in either category.
The first two thirds of An Innocent Man play like a standard "innocent guy in crazy, violent prison" kind of movie. There have been countless numbers of these and more will be made in the future; it's a genre that simply won't go away, probably because it's easy for an audience to root for the put upon underdog, and it's easy for a film crew to shoot a film that takes place around a single set or location. Most of these films are pure exploitation, exaggerating the dangers present behind prison walls to such ridiculous levels that you wonder just how such craziness goes unchecked. Occasionally, there is one that rises above the exploitative elements, The Shawshank Redemption for example, although that film trades on many prison movie clichés too.
Of most interest in An Innocent Man is the final third. Most wrongfully accused prison films end with our lead proving his innocence and walking out to his family and supporters. An Innocent Man has a whole extra act that follows Selleck after his exit from prison. Firstly, he does not prove his innocence. He got screwed by an imperfect system and there is nothing that he is able to do about it. His life as he knew it prior to doing time is gone, and he has to deal with a new life, one of a paroled convict. Also, his prison experience did not leave him unscathed; he had to do things in prison to survive which cannot be erased or forgotten. He is a new man. He may have been innocent once, but not so any more. "It's not what happened to me, it's what I did," says Selleck to his wife as he tries to explain why he is now capable of ultra violence and why he has a whole roster of new criminal buddies.
I really like this avenue that An Innocent Man took. Questions are raised about the justice system, and it is also implied that once the innocent man's life has been tempered with, that innocence is lost forever and no amount of official apologies or pardons can bring it back. Prison forces people to access their own personal beasts, and once the beast is out, there's no putting it back.
Sadly, An Innocent Man loses most of these interesting threads amidst one dimensional characterizations and some generic action scenarios, including a climactic battle between the post-prison tough-as-nails Selleck and the two bad cops that sent him down to save their own filthy skins. This final showdown betrays An Innocent Man. OK, so we get to see Selleck kick some butt, but it all feels generic and contrived beyond any reasonable level.
Selleck does a decent turn as the good man put in a tight spot. His 'good guy' moments are far more believable that his 'hardass' persona once he is toughened up by prison, but overall he does a fine job. F. Murray Abrahams is probably the star of the film as his 'cool and wise mentoring prisoner guy', the role that Morgan Freeman owned in Shawshank Redemption, is charismatic if slightly too clever and witty. Mention must go to David Rasche, TV's Sledge Hammer!, whose over the top cop is a villain so corrupt he gives ordinary villains a bad name. Laila Robins performs the sweet and caring wife role she'd done previously in Planes, Trains and Automobiles, but she plays it very effectively. Also of note are early and small appearances by Philip Baker Hall (Hard Eight) and Tobin Bell (Saw). Finally, versatile character actor Bruce A. Young (remember Jackie from Risky Business?) does a menacing turn as prison villain Jingles and I found to be a highlight of the film.
This pre-CGI film features some memorable action scenes and a couple of amazing stunts. This was a time before dangerous stunts could be faked through computers or shifty camerawork. Instead, directors relied on stuntwork done by brave or foolish stunt men and women. There is a stunt toward the end of An Innocent Man that is out of this world and probably the most crazy thing I've seen since that Mad Max stuntman getting hit in the head by a speeding and out of control motorcycle. Selleck's double falls head first onto a car roof with the rest of his body squashing down on his neck until I was certain that it would break. I found no mention online of anyone getting seriously hurt during the making of this film, but I would not be surprised to learn that the stuntman did not walk away from that shot without needing medical attention.
The 1.78 widescreen presentation comes to this Blu-ray via a 1080i transfer that impresses. The picture is for most part sharp and the colors vivid. There is the odd bit of flickering in one or two scenes, film grain is visible throughout, and there are occasional blemishes. But overall, for a film this old, the transfer looks excellent. The DTS-HD 2.0 master audio track is also well executed. It will not compete with modern mixes and won't push the limits of your surround system, but it's perfectly reasonable for a film of this vintage.
This budget Blu-ray comes in a bare bones format. Not even a trailer is included, but for five bucks retail, I'm not complaining. Of note is the fact that even though the Blu-ray is clearly labeled as being Region A, it played in both my multi-region and Region B players without problems.
An Innocent Man feels like a film with an identity crisis. I get the feeling the script started life as a serious meditation on the effects of incarceration, especially on the wrongfully accused, but somehow metamorphosed into a straightforward bit of prison exploitation with a revenge film angle tacked on. It's a film worth your time if you're a fan of Tom Selleck, want to see some excellent actors chomp their way through a cliché ridden script, or if you are in the mood for a by-the-numbers prison flick. It's genre, it's exploitation, and it's unoriginal. But, it's also entertaining, has an excellent cast, and there are enough interesting questions being asked to make it worthy of viewing with your brain activated. Although it's routine and a bit clichéd, I was impressed with the film's loftier thematic goals.
Review content copyright © 2011 Jake Ware; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Mill Creek Entertainment
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080i)
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)
Running Time: 113 Minutes
Release Year: 1989
MPAA Rating: Rated R