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dir: Gregory Hoblit
[img_assist|nid=772|title=The real victim is the audience|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=300|height=552]
I went in expecting one thing; what I got was completely different.

I was expecting a movie that would be passably entertaining. What I got was a lazy court room / legal drama that was marginally less interesting than the average episode of Murder, She Wrote.

Ah, Angela Lansbury. They just poured her into that old biddy outfit.

Godsdamnit, that’s going to replace the ninjas in my nightmares. I can’t say I was ever a fan of Murder, She Wrote, or Diagnosis: Murder or Matlock, but they do serve a purpose: a light confection designed to present a puzzle and solve it just after the last ad break, with everything tied up in a neat little package.

Personally, I was always a bit more of a Columbo fan. Watching Peter Falk and his glass eye shuffle around and causing the murderer to go berserk with ever-escalating levels of frustration was a joy to behold. By the time they’d get to the end of the episode, you knew Columbo knew the bugger or buggette was guilty right from the start: he just needed enough time to figure it out for himself, or to wait for the guilty sod to trip him or herself up.

As an hour long episode, it works. As a two hour feature movie, where we know who did it and how, with little of interest in-between, it is painful to have to wait so long for the main character to catch up on something we already know.

I’m not always big on the pigeon-holing, since pigeons are flying rats and pigeon holes must be really filthy places in which to wedge things, but my inability to label this flick is indicative of how all over the place it is in my eyes. It looks like a legalistic courtroom drama, but it spends only a few minutes in the hallowed halls of justice. It looks like a police procedural, but most of that requires two characters saying, “Keep looking for the gun,” “We can’t find the gun,” “Keep looking for the gun,” for two hours.

Is it a psychomalogical battle of wills between two protagonists playing a complicated game of cat and mouse? That component, deliberately trying to recall Sir Anthony Hopkins’s signature role in Silence of the Lambs, consists of Hopkins’s Ted Crawford character taunting young hotshot prosecutor Willy Beachum (Ryan Gosling) with hints about how he’s going to get away with murder. There’s no battle of wills: there’s just an old, malevolent troll of a guy making bitchy comments and being oh-so-brilliant until the end, where he becomes really, really dumb.

That cunning intellect, that remarkable ability to plan ahead and orchestrate events only continues for as long as is convenient before the whole thing falls apart at the end when the righteous prosecutor figures it all out. Or does it?

Apart from the fact that Hopkins sleepwalks through the role, the entire premise is idiotic. The big reveal at the end as to how Crawford actually committed the crime in such a way as to confuse the legal eagles isn’t so surprising since it’s telegraphed from the beginning. But the necessity of so many variables playing out in such a way as to result in this set of circumstances that put Crawford in the clear are ridiculous, plot hole heavy, and laughable in the extreme.

Of course, none of that should matter as long as the journey along the way is sufficiently entertaining. In this case, I don’t think it justifies the expense either time or moneywise. There’s nothing in this flick that isn’t generic legal drama crap; there’s nothing new about the characters and none of the performances, especially Ryan Gosling’s smug, gum-chewing portrayal as the lead character, really help.

All the backstory he gets is that it’s strongly implied he grew up poor, and that he’s only in this law caper for the big bucks. At the same time as the trial, Willy is propositioned by some big law firm called Wolfram & Hart, I think. Such a career change promises to put him in the big leagues financially, but the senior partners of the law firm are capricious and fire-prone, in that he seems to be able to be fired at a moment’s notice, before he even starts. It’s like he took on a job as an assistant to a Hollywood producer, and can be fired for getting the wrong muffin or for having the bath water at a temperature one degree off.

Maybe that’s supposed to increase the stakes or the jeopardy angle, but it’s pointless filler in a film already coasting. He strikes up some kind of relationship with some liaison to the senior partners, but she is so insipid and bloodless that she really is only in the flick for the obligatory “He’s Not Gay!” sex scene, of which we only see the aftermath. It also doesn’t ring true that a senior team leader of junior lawyers to such a prestigious and clearly evil law firm would so jeopardise her career by shagging one of her underlings whilst he’s still on probation.

Ultimately, whilst it isn’t an entirely unpleasant way to spend a couple of wasted hours that you could have otherwise spent helping starving orphans, feeding the homeless or getting quality lapdances from a materialistic girl calling herself Sunshine who is already dead inside, it’s not the greatest. The person who can be thoroughly entertained by this is the person who doesn’t realise the magnitude of the idiocy of the premise and likewise doesn’t care because that dreamy Anthony Hopkins is in it and using his charming Welsh accent for once.

There are reoccurring scenes of intricately engineered contraptions that have glass orbs rolling around in serene arcs and perfect trajectories. Crawford is an aeronautical engineer, and is giving us another visual clue that he’s really good at putting a plan in motion. At a point where he thinks he’s on top of the world, the glass sphere falls off the rails. He bends the rail slightly, and sets the ball on its way again. Could this mean that he’s not necessarily the master strategist that he thinks he is?

Of course, it’s really one of those circumstances where they tell you the guy is a freaking genius without actually having to back it up with a clever script.

Without spoiling the premise, apart from the fact that the point of the story isn’t who killed who, but whether the Crawford character can beat the rap for shooting his wife in the head, his brilliant and dastardly plan is contingent on so many silly contrivances that not only doesn’t he strike me as the guy genius enough to beat a murder rap when he clearly did it, he barely convinces me that he can brush his teeth without choking to death on the toothbrush.

Much of the plot rests on the absolute necessity of having a certain policeman arrive at a particular house after the crime is committed. How in the name of all that is holy could even a genius of Hannibal Lecterian proportions know that would happen? It’s also absolutely necessary for the policeman not to know the identity of the victim, or who the husband is in relation to her until the exact moment Hannibal, sorry, I mean Crawford wants it to happen for it to allow him to do something. How the hell could he have ensured that? What if the guy hadn’t arrived in time, or with a particularly crucial piece of equipment on him, or any number of other unpredictable variables that would render his masterful strategy about as sensible and successful as the plan to conquer Iraq?

That it works out to his liking is not the issue. It works out the way he wants because that’s what the screenwriters want: your characters, unless they’re played by Donald Sutherland, are as smart or as dumb as you write them to be. The problem is that it has to be convincing. This, for me, is not convincing in the slightest. Not in the slightest. Least of all the ending. All the legal mumbo jumbo in the word can’t hide the fact that the brilliant ending is as brilliant as the beginning: utterly contrived.

Very little about this flick was convincing, and, overall, I have to say it was pretty disappointing. About the strongest moment in the whole dull enterprise is when our young prosecutor has a chance to get Crawford via some shonky evidence, and spends a long, long time thinking about which path to take. That’s as good as it got.

Okay performances don’t salvage what is, for me, a tedious and mediocre entry into the legal eagle genre. I can’t imagine watching this again at anything apart from gunpoint.

5 ways in which Hopkins on autopilot is not a pretty thing out of 10

“Unfortunately, the man is a tax-paying citizen and is entitled by our Constitution to try and manipulate the legal system like everybody else.” – Fracture.


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