As drama, this is nothing to get excited about. Its surprises are about as surprising as discovering fruit at a fruit stand. As filmmaking, it’s rarely more than professional. But it works better than it has any right to thanks to the performances of Ashley Judd and Morgan Freeman, who bring a gravity and conviction to the material that it frankly doesn’t deserve. Here’s the set-up: Hotshot lawyer Claire Kubik (Judd) has a seemingly ideal marriage with Tom Kubik (Jim Caviezel) until he’s suddenly (and with improbably dramatic flair) arrested by the federal government and placed on trial by the Marine Corps for allegedly killing several people while on a mission in South America. She also learns that her husband isn’t even Tom Kubik, but a guy named Ron Chapman. This shakes her faith in him somewhat, but not sufficiently to prevent her from defending him. Realizing she’s inadequately schooled in the procedure of military justice, she hires former military lawyer and recovering alcoholic Charlie Grimes (Freeman) to help her fight for her man, whoever he is. There are a couple of ways — according to the laws of formula movies — to handle the central subject. One: Tom/Ron isn’t guilty and the movie can spend its time painting a horrible portrait of the military, leading to a high-powered courtroom climax with an emotional ending. complete with lush scoring and maybe an elaborate crane shot pulling away from the leads. Two: Tom/Ron really is guilty and the movie can spend its time painting a horrible portrait of the military (this is a win-win proposition that works in either case), leading to his apparent vindication, but his ultimate unmasking in private and the shattering disillusionment of his wife. (The second scenario will probably leave the story with loose ends and logistic gaps, so the film must festoon the plot with sufficient incidental details to utterly bamboozle the viewer into being too overwhelmed to worry about such things.) Of course, there’s another point to consider in the High Crimes melange: When and how (not if, since that’s not optional) will Charlie Grimes fall off the wagon? It ought to occur at a very inopportune time, but since he’s played by Morgan Freeman, he can’t fall so far that he becomes incapable of doing his job. Yes, you’ve seen it all before and you’re not going to see anything very different here. Indeed, the film’s tepid effort at being surprising — after all, this is supposed to be a thriller — is so obviously telegraphed by adhering to the above formula that the film tips its hand pretty early on. What’s truly amazing, however, is that Judd and Freeman manage to play the whole thing as if they’ve never seen anything like this in their lives. Their performances alone manage to make their one-and-a-half dimensional movie characters seem almost alarmingly real. Unfortunately, no one else in the cast gets this kind of chance. Poor Jim Caviezel, who was so good in The Count of Monte Cristo, is saddled with an impossible role and an even more impossible haircut. Neither of these things are really his fault (though he might have realized that a military cut was going to give him Clark Gable Ears, which, unlike Bette Davis Eyes, is not a desirable look), but it’s the sort of career move likely to send an actor back to supporting roles. The best efforts of the rest of the performers do little to help, and neither does director Franklin. It all falls on the capable shoulders of Judd and Freeman to keep the movie from sinking like a very heavy stone, and they pull it off. As an opportunity to see two consummate pros make something out of nothing, High Crimes is not without merit. On any other level, it’s nothing special.
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