Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel

True Crime (1999) **

Directed by Clint Eastwood. Written by Larry Gross, Paul Brickman and Stephen Schiff, based on the novel by Andrew Klavan. Photography, Jack N. Green. Editing, Joel Cox. Production design, Henry Bumstead. Music,Lennie Niehaus. . Cast: Clint Eastwood (Steve Everett), Isaiah Washington (Frank Beachum), Denis Leary (Bob Findley), Lisa Gay Hamilton (Mrs. Beachum), James Woods (Alan Mann), Diane Venora (Barbara), Bernard Hill (Warden Luther Plunkitt), Michael McKean (Reverend Shillerman), Francesca Fisher-Eastwood (Kate Everett), Laila Robins (Patricia Findley), Mary McCormack (Michelle Ziegler), et al. Produced by Eastwood, Richard D. Zanuck and Lili Fini Zanuck. Released by Warner Brothers. 127 minutes. This film is rated R (violence, sex)

"True Crime" is about two lady-killers. Frank Beachum, a black man, was found guilty of murdering a pregnant convenience-store employee. to rob the place of less than one-hundred dollars. He is in San Quentin's death row.

The other lady-killer is Steve Everett ( 69-year old Eastwood), a hot shot NYC reporter. His exposes of corruption in high places had made him enemies. Worse yet was his compulsive womanizing. This crested when he had sex with a minor ("I thought she was 18") who was the daughter of his newspaper's owner. Expulsion followed, and a period of heavy drinking. Now on the wagon, he is working for the Oakland Tribune.

We meet him in a bar where he consumes non-alcoholic beverages. Why does he go to a watering spot for those?. One rationale might be that he has separated from his wife and does not like drinking alone, even Dr. Pepper. On the other hand, the now sober Steve has not sworn off sex. At the bar he chats up a colleague, Michelle, a cub reporter at the Tribune. She cooperates in the flirtation even though she is young enough to be his granddaughter.

After a few drinks Michelle leaves the bar. "Drive safe" says Steve in one of those phrases that substitute adjectives for adverbs. It's night, it's pouring felines and canines, the windshield wipers are working overtime, Michelle drives at over 60 mph in the driving rain. Is an accident being telegraphed to the audience? You bet. Michelle perishes on the unimaginatively named Dead Man's Curve.

The next day, or rather night, on the stroke of 12 Beachum. will be executed. The Tribune had assigned Michelle to interview the man in his last hours. What bad taste! How cynical! Now, with the girl gone, Steve gets that job. Right away he senses a miscarriage of justice. He has special doubts about the reliability of sole witness who claimed to have seen Beachum, smoking gun in hand. Steve investigates. . . Clint Eastwood as justice-maker, righter of wrongs or crusader is nothing new. Nor is the film genre of trying to save an innocent man from execution. Almost certainly the first example of this was in D. W. Griffith's classic, 4-stories epic "Intolerance" (1916).

The death penalty has been, and still is, a major, controversial issue, in great part because some people on death row might be innocent. In his twenty-first film as a director, Eastwood tackles as heavy and upsetting subject as can be. But what also upsets me is the number of persons saying or writing that "True Crime," is "entertaining," "enjoyable," or "fun. " Are we so desensitized? At the paper, Steve gets strict orders from above to stick to the formula and try no tricks. The regulations are set by city editor Bob Findley (Denis Leary) and editor-in-chief Alan Mann (James Woods).

Bob is dull fellow who is not exactly enamored of Steve. He just found out that Steve had been sleeping with Madame Findley. (She had perversely cued her husband by leaving traces of Steve's passage. And Steven had been with her earlier, before going to the newspaper).

Alan is by very far the most attention-holding, lively and interesting person in the movie. His behavior, lines and actions are pure over-the-top James Woods, one of the most fascinating performers in Hollywood, even if his presumed politics are wrong.

Undaunted (as Clint is, perpetually), Steve sets to prove the innocence of Beacham. What? Can he do this in just, merely, hardly, only a dozen hours (if that many) before the execution?

That's a bit thick. This thins the plot. What a pity that the ludicrousness of it all detracts from the seriousness of a situation replete with human pain, anti-capital punishment messages, anti-racism, and the injustice of justice gone wrong.

Conveniently and artificially stressing the suspense is the fact that with every minute counting Steve's estranged wife practically bullies him to take, on that very day, their 5 1/2 year-old girl to the zoo, as previously arranged. Absurdly, the strong Eastwoodian character obliges. (The girl is Eastwood's daughter with Frances Fisher. This and other aspects shown seem to be self-references to Clint's own womanizing)

Artificially, far too neatly, there's a stress on parallels between Steve's failed family and the strong bonds in Beacham's. The latter's desperate wife and their little girl visit him for the last time ever.

In artificially and most inappropriately tacked on black humor, the San Quentin. prison's chaplain is a smug, unfeeling prig who brings phony and wrong "consolations" to Beacham, irritates him as well as all others. . It's in terribly bad taste, yet the clergyman is very well played by another actor who is on my list of favorites:. the superbly versatile, chameleon-like Michael McKean who, like that most hyper of thespians, James Woods, has enhanced many a movie and TV series (e. g. "Dream On")

The rest of the cast is good and performs soberly. Fine too are the production values, cinematography, and especially the depressing sounds of clanking prison doors and gates.

But the film is one of those time-watching affairs where clocks (as here) or other types of countdown timers keep approaching inexorably the fatal H-hour. It's been used, misused and overused in movies about executions, war, terrorism, heists and practically all other genres, comedies included (e. g. Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove") The best application of this, one that transcends gimmickry, is in "High Noon. "

Given the impossible time-frame, Steve's instincts are more like powers of divination than detection. . His laser-sharp eyes that zoom on crucial clues add to the unrealism,. Steve's movie-traditional (i. e. deja vu cliche) last minute mad drive to get to the Governor on time to save Beacham is ridiculous.

I do appreciate the portrait of Steve as a superanuated Don Juan for not trying to redeem him. However, the under-12-hours cliffhanger gets more unlikely by the minute. While the subject is strong, its treatment is wrong. It's patchworky, as if the three scriptwriters, rather than collaborate, made separate contributions which were cobbled together in an unreal and unsubtle manner.

The "de rigueur" song that goes with the end-credits is, as usual, bad, irrelevant and dumb.

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel