The new film "High Crimes" (IMDb listing) is like an old, dusty, mass-market mystery/thriller novel that you can't put down. You know almost exactly where it's going to go and how it's going to end, but the very thought of slipping your fingers into the yellowed, dog-eared pages for another tasty slice of duplicitous intrigue and ham-fisted theatrics is enough to keep you on cloud 9 for the rest of the day.
Claire Kubick (Ashley Judd) is a high powered attorney by day, a loving wife with baby-fever by night. Married to Tom (James Caviezel, "The Count Of Monte Cristo"), a former Marine, Claire is living an idyllic life. One night while Christmas shopping, federal agents swarm the couple and take Tom into custody. The charges? Murder in the first degree, going back to a stint the soldier had in El Salvador in 1988. Claire, headstrong and determined to prove her husband's innocence, teams up with a military lawyer (Adam Scott) and a local attorney named Charles Grimes (Morgan Freeman) who's way past his prime, but nevertheless interested in making the military court look foolish. Together, they fight the system that ultimately takes them to the highest ranking officer (sadly, played with predictable sneer by omnipresent bad guy actor Bruce Davison) in hopes of clearing Tom's questionable name.
There is just no bones about it, "High Crimes" isn't rocket science. It's a courtroom mystery/legal thriller that doesn't break any new ground whatsoever. And while clichés and formula perturb me terribly, I can respect and enjoy a film that accomplishes its easy targets competently, and without all the unnecessary baggage that many other softball-throwing pictures feel the need to pile on top of themselves. "High Crimes" is manufactured in the tradition of John Grisham, mixed with the swirly double-crossing elements of James Patterson (the film is based on a novel by Joseph Finder), and the result is a film that is so conventional, it's intoxicating. You've been there and done that, but it's rarely been this engaging.
The main reason for this magical aura of stability seems to come from director Carl Franklin, the noted filmmaker behind "One False Move" and "Devil In A Blue Dress." Franklin is known for his intelligent, mature films, but to attain the top of the power list, Franklin must play ball with the bottom-feeding studios. I doubt "High Crimes" is the type of picture Franklin would normally gravitate to, but he takes on the challenge of this audience-pleasing movie with all the accuracy of a pro, and the film often goes down like a cool drink of water. Franklin keeps the story moving along, even in the face of story inconsistencies or lousy casting (again, Davison). However slight the charms of "High Crimes" might have looked on paper, Franklin maintains a nice poker face and doesn't allow the viewer to consider that this material might not be all that good. Imagine if "Showtime" or "The Time Machine" had this kind of filmmaking caliber behind it. Life would be so much easier.
The treat of "High Crimes" is watching Ashley Judd and Morgan Freeman reteam after their last successful partnership in the 1997 thriller "Kiss The Girls." While still a very strange pairing of talents, the two actors have a marvelous chemistry they exploit even more effectively in "Crimes." Judd, always a commanding actress, seems to have found her niche in empowerment films ("Double Jeopardy," "Someone Like You") and her performance in "Crimes" is along the same lines. She's good under fire, and Franklin allows plenty of character development for Judd to work with. The same can be said of Freeman, whose Grimes character is given an alcoholic subplot that never meanders into lecture or pity. Freeman is much too good an actor to get swallowed up by this type of sidekick role, but this little storyline permits Freeman to dig a little deeper and try to find a heart beating in the chest of a normally cookie-cutter characterization.
Even I had to face down a certain amount of reluctance before finally coming to the conclusion that "High Crimes" is worth the time and money spent. It's frustrating to see such a derivative picture, but it's so rare to come across one that fully acknowledges its predictable self, and tries to find other angles to play with to make the ride seem more pleasurable. "High Crimes" might not have you guessing, but it will be a fun time out at the movies, and that's more than I can say for even the most original films.
Filmfodder Grade: B+