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'Crimes' has been-there-done-that feel

| Friday, April 5, 2002

"High Crimes" is the name. Ye Olde Stacked Deck is the game.

Tom Kubik (Jim Caviezel) and his wife, Claire (Ashley Judd), are too happy not to be interrupted. Their biggest worry is carefully timed copulation. She's eager to have a child - to give life.

Claire is an articulate, high velocity attorney who might be promoted to law firm partner. She's keen on redressing injustices. She also shoots pool like a Good Old Girl at a trendy San Francisco neighborhood hangout.

Fate will lower the boom - something related to the prologue set in El Salvador in 1988 when nine locals were slaughtered (the Mi Lai plot syndrome). That was shortly after three young civilian Americans were killed in a cafe bombing.

Claire plays catch-up after Tom is arrested violently and hauled off to a stockade. It seems his real name is Ron Chapman. He's accused of desertion, assaulting an officer and multiple counts of manslaughter. Or is it murder• And what else have you got?

"I had no choice" about the assumed identity, he tells his spouse. "They were accusing me of something I didn't do."

When the Army assigns as his defense a "junior varsity lieutenant" named Embry (Adam Scott) who has never won a case, and sets him up against a deck of high-ranking officers including Major Waldron (Michael Gaston), Col. Farrell (Jude Ciccolella) and Brig. Gen. Marks (Bruce Davison), Claire becomes piqued.

She rounds up the sober alcoholic Charlie Grimes (Morgan Freeman), who is a former military attorney, and steels herself to take on the U.S. Army in its own ballpark, where court-martial rules differ from civilian courtrooms.

Claire could do without the minor complications imposed by her irresponsible sister Jackie (Amanda Peet) and an evil-eyed aggressor from Tom's 1988 outfit, Major Hernandez (Juan Carlos Hernandez).

In adapting Joseph Finder's novel, spouse screenwriters Yuri Zeltser and Cary Bickley shifted the action from New England, where Claire was a Harvard law professor, to the Bay Area (mostly) and altered Charlie's background.

Director Carl Franklin ("One True Thing," "Devil in a Blue Dress") keeps the picture moving, choosing a cheesy home-movie look for the El Salvador sequences and a nice high gloss for the rest.

He allows characters to shed tears with surprising regularity, especially considering there's nothing moving about the movie.

There's an abiding predictability to the set-up and to the standard court-martial underdog plot familiar from "A Soldier's Story," "A Few Good Men," "Hart's War" and others.

It's the kind of material, though, that can be recycled in endless variations and still sustain interest. But as reconfigured here, it can't support much scrutiny.

Freeman was top-billed when he last worked with Judd in "Kiss the Girls" (1997), but here she's billed first and has by far the more prominent role. Still, he can't help stealing every scene effortlessly as an old dog with a bad habit.

What seems tired and tiresome and a bit out of step since Sept. 11 is the picture's thoroughly anti-military posturing. "High Crimes" went into production late in 2000 and took its time getting to market.

The way the film plays, the inexperienced Lt. Embry is the only passable apple portrayed in the whole darn Army. Now that's a stacked deck.

'High Crimes'


Director: Carl Franklin
Stars: Ashley Judd, Morgan Freeman, Jim Caviezel
MPAA Rating: PG-13, for violence, sexual content and language
stars

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