“High Crimes” is the best film of the year, if one had never seen a movie before. However, if this were one’s second movie, he or she would dismiss it as riddled with cliches.

The film has some ambition to rid itself of those cliches, but ultimately succumbs to the easier route of the thriller genre. Why go off the beaten path when people are comfortable with the same characters and plots? Which makes one wonder why they made the film at all.

At the center of this legal thriller, adapted from Joseph Finder’s book, is Claire Kubik (Ashley Judd), a successful lawyer who is thrown into the quagmire of the military justice system when her husband is arrested by the FBI. To her surprise she learns that the man she thought her husband is actually an ex-Marine who went AWOL after a brutal slaughter in a South American village. He is charged with mass murder and faces a court martial.

Despite her expertise in law (she is the best defense attorney in San Francisco, of course), she is unfamiliar with military justice and hires Charlie Grimes (Morgan Freeman), a self-destructive renegade lawyer and ex-Marine who specializes in military tribunals.

The highlight of this film is the chemistry between Judd and Freeman. They worked well together in “Kiss the Girls” and they have successfully continued that dynamic here. The knowledgeable sage and the strong minded female make for an interesting exchange, and these two are perhaps the greatest at it. At the end of the film the moviegoer wishes that they had been in a better movie.

One of the more troubling and illogical parts of the film is the motivation of the designated bad guys. By movie’s end, one is led to believe they may not be the bad guys. Apparently the filmmakers didn’t think resolving this issue was important. And why must the evil guy have the deformed eye? The deformed eye guy is never good. Under this Hollywood rule the most evil casting would be Hitler as played by Marty Feldmen.

The plot and cliches are not the only pitiful aspects of this film. The accused murderer is played by James Caviezel, who is either really unfortunate in choosing roles (“Pay It Forward” and “Angel Eyes”) or he is just a bad actor. One tends to think it is the latter. He doesn’t convey any emotion in this film, even for someone falsely accused of mass murder and facing capital punishment. To paraphrase Dorothy Parker, Caviezel runs the gamut of emotions from A to B.

Director Carl Franklin should be embarrassed for making this film. After showing such promise with “One False Move” and “Devil in a Blue Dress,” both smart and moody thrillers, Franklin should have had the fortitude to continue pushing the envelope to further redefine the mystery genre. Instead he only reheats cliches of thrillers never good to begin with.

That is not to say that Franklin’s talent does not shine in certain scenes, but the fact that a very talented filmmaker failed so miserably only points out the mediocrity of the script.

Staff Writer Stephen Allan can be contacted at: [email protected]


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