THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


High Crimes is an example of three immensely talented and innovative people teaming together to make an utterly commercial movie. Stars Ashley Judd and Morgan Freeman are superb actors who frequently deliver heartfelt, effective performances that blow you away. And director Carl Franklin is noted for such carefully crafted films as One False Move, Devil in a Blue Dress, and One True Thing. You might wonder why these individuals would team up for a routine Hollywood courtroom thriller. Don't get me wrong - the movie is good and worth seeing - I just would have expected this kind of talent to team up for something more ambitious.

Judd plays Claire Kubik, a prominent attorney trying to get pregnant with her ex-military husband Tom (Jim Caviezel). One night, the couple is ambushed on a city street by an FBI team. Tom is arrested and hauled off to prison. Claire storms in, demanding to know what the charges are, but according to military law she is not obligated to be informed. Tom is assigned a young attorney, Lt. Embry (Adam Scott), and decides to offer her own services in conjunction with his. When she is finally told what her husband is being charged with, it hits her like a lightning bolt. Years earlier, Tom was part of a covert operation to locate and capture a terrorist in El Salvador. During the mission, he allegedly went nuts and killed nine civilians. Compounding the shock is the fact that Tom did this under his real name: Ron Chapman.

Ashley Judd tries to defend husband Jim Caviezel in the courtroom drama High Crimes
When questioned by Claire, Tom admits that he did change his name, but adds that he did so to avoid being framed by the fellow soldier who really did the killings. Tom says he was unwilling to go along in the cover-up and is now being "taken care of." Needing help navigating the military law system, Claire calls on Charlie Grimes (Freeman), a recovering alcoholic who has a grudge against the system and is hungry to win. Together, they uncover a number of clues indicating that a conspiracy reaches all the way to Brg. General Marks (Bruce Davison), a highly-decorated military officer.

High Crimes is an efficient enough thriller, in large part because of the acting. Judd and Freeman don't reach the dramatic heights of their career performances in, say, Ruby in Paradise and The Shawshank Redemption, but both deliver solid work here. Judd has always projected a fierce intelligence, so it's no stretch to picture her as a lawyer. Her ability to play women who cut through red tape makes her a natural choice for the role. Freeman, of course, is one of those guys who you can never take your eyes off. Often he plays intense characters, but this time he plays a guy who revels in his own ability to be a wild card and he's clearly loving every minute of it. Because they previously co-starred together in Kiss the Girls, Judd and Freemen have a familiarity that works in the movie's favor. They make a good team.

Storywise, the picture is on mixed ground. I liked most of it, especially the way the truth about the mission in El Salvador slowly reveals itself. I think there are interesting themes here as well, most notably the idea that our military covers up certain aspects of its missions in order to appear more politically correct. The plot has the requisite number of twists and turns, some of which are predictable while others are more surprising. The biggest copout is the ending, which in fairness I won't divulge. A perfectly plausible explanation is given (one that might have had real poignancy had it been allowed to breathe) only to be shuttled off in favor of the usual thriller melodrama involving guns and a rescue.

More than anything, that's where I was let down. Director Franklin has made a career of examining his films' themes in almost microscopic detail. That he would abandon this story's most intriguing idea in favor of generic gunplay is almost shocking. As it stands, High Crimes is a decent B-list movie - perhaps not the first thing you'd want to line up to see at the multiplex, but a decent evening of entertainment if you do decide to go. I just hope that someday these people all reunite for a movie that aims a little higher than this one.

( out of four)

High Crimes is rated PG-13 for violence, sexual content and language. The running time is 1 hours and 56 minutes.

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