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Sunday, December 6, 2009


"Why," asks the tagline for 2009's BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT, "would a man frame himself for murder?" Hmm--because he's stupid? Or maybe because he's an ambitious young TV-news reporter who wants to prove that a big-shot district attorney, in a bid to become the next governor, has been planting DNA evidence to help him win high-profile murder cases?

If you chose either of those possibilities, you get a cigar. Jesse Metcalfe (LOADED, JOHN TUCKER MUST DIE) plays C.J. Nicholas, the boyish newshound with the half-baked scheme to have himself charged with the brutal murder of a prostitute with the help of his cameraman, Finley (Joel Moore). With an industrious fervor, they plant just about every bit of fake evidence necessary to have the cops come knocking at C.J.'s door with a warrant, led by the always likable Orlando Jones as Detective Ben Nickerson. Stupid mission accomplished!

But before you can say "oops", the DVD evidence needed to clear C.J. of the charges and prove district attorney Mark Hunter (Michael Douglas) guilty of evidence tampering is destroyed. Cut to our brilliant reporter on death row awaiting his execution by lethal injection. Can you say "duh"?

But wait--as chance would have it, C.J. has been romancing Hunter's pretty assistant, Ella (Amber Tamblyn, "Joan of Arcadia"), and she embarks on a little Nancy Drew action to try and clear his name. But Hunter's onto her, and sics his burly bad-cop henchman on her. Will she live long enough to save the day?

A remake of the 1956 film noir directed by Fritz Lang, this low-grade thriller by writer-director Peter Hyams (THE STAR CHAMBER, OUTLAND, 2010), which was filmed in Shreveport, Louisiana, is little more than a mildly-interesting way to waste an hour and a half. Hyams rushes us through the plot as though he's afraid to linger on anything for more than a few seconds, making it impossible for us to really get to know these characters or invest any emotion in them.

This is reflected in the choppy, hyper editing, which bombards us with way too many different shots and camera angles even in the slower scenes. Major story points and exposition are often revealed by on-the-spot TV reporters covering the trial, making us feel as though we've missed whole scenes. This kind of hurried-along, shorthand storytelling gives the film a flat, distant feeling that is in evidence even in the love scenes between C.J. and Ella, which are perfunctory at best, and drain much of the suspense from the courtroom scenes themselves, which should have been the film's high point. Murky cinematography and sound, along with one of master film composer David Shire's least effective scores, also fall short of the mark.

The story comes to life during its action and suspense sequences. Hyams delivers a rousing chase scene in the first half, with a frantic Finley racing to get to the courtroom on time with the evidence to clear C.J. as Hunter's crooked cop pursues him with intent to kill. Another chase in a parking garage has the bad guy trying to run down a fleeing Ella--there's a really neat shot of her cowering against a pillar as he does doughnuts around her in his car. In a less frenetic scene, Ella tries to steal some restricted files from a police computer before the cop in charge returns and catches her, generating some mild Hitchcock-style suspense. Here, the editing serves the film well for a change.

Metcalf and Tamblyn do what they can with their underwritten characters, but we never have more than a superficial interest in them. Douglas, of course, can make the most of material like this without breaking a sweat, and it's a shame his character wasn't fleshed out more--it would've been interesting to see him given more to do. As it is, he advances the plot and that's about it. On a positive note, none of the actors attempts one of those comically fake-sounding Southern accents that one sometimes hears in these Louisiana-based productions.

The DVD from Anchor Bay is in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen with Dolby Surround 5.1 and English and Spanish subtitles. Extras include a commentary with Hyams and Metcalfe, and two brief (less than four minutes apiece) featurettes. One is a making-of promo, "The Whole Truth--The Making of 'Beyond a Reasonable Doubt'" and the other, "Criminal Forensics--The Burden of Proof" features an ex-cop discussing how crime-scene evidence is collected and processed.

It's hard to sink your teeth into BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT--it's like sitting down to a steak dinner and being served a bowl of Jello. You might even be a little amazed at how rushed the story's resolution is, although just when you think it's over, there's a nifty twist right before the fadeout that almost makes the whole viewing experience worthwhile. It's too little too late, but I liked it.

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