27 February 2005 | J. Spurlin
Ludicrous psychological thriller with a good score and a few good moments
There's a big laugh in the middle of this contrived psychological thriller. I won't give it away, because it's easily the best moment in the film. It's the scene in a bar with Don Johnson, and it sketches in his character more brilliantly than anything before or after. You'll know it when you see it.
Well, if you see it. If the script had displayed that kind of wit throughout, this movie would be a must-see. As it is, there is too little that makes it memorable and too much that makes it hard to suspend disbelief.
Rebecca De Mornay plays a flashy criminal defense attorney who does her job with spectacular cunning – even for the most unsavory defendants. But her newest client (Don Johnson) is not just unsavory. He could be dangerous enough to kill her.
The first thing you'll notice is Howard Shore's excellent score during the title sequence. It's silky and sinister and immediately draws you in (despite the tacky-looking computer graphic that accompanies it). Next, the film looks really good. Sidney Lumet – who also gave us "Twelve Angry Men," "The Verdict" and many other terrific movies – knows how to direct a good courtroom thriller. And what a courtroom. The photographer, Andrzej Bartkowiak, makes the most of this spacious green-marble set.
An early scene is promising. Don Johnson glides into De Mornay's office and asks her to take his case, brazenly confessing that he's a womanizer and a gigolo – yet innocent of throwing his wife out of a skyscraper window. She refuses at first, but Johnson's boyish egotism is too hypnotically fascinating.
But later, both actors falter. De Mornay makes several bad choices in her performance, playing too many scenes like a frightened rabbit. Johnson has a scene in his apartment, where he makes a sandwich with a long kitchen knife that he winds up waving in De Mornay's face. His character loses control, but so does the actor. Johnson looks and sounds ridiculous.
But the main problem is the script from schlock-horror director Larry Cohen. First, there's Jack Warden's character, a father figure to De Mornay, who comes off as purely functional. He's there to do things De Mornay's character cannot, and we don't give a damn about him, not even when he winds up in danger.
Second, De Mornay ends up framing her own client, an enormously risky endeavor that could easily destroy her career and even send her to prison. Why? Presumably to protect herself and other women from Johnson. But the movie fails to convince us she has no saner options.
Third, there's the woman who becomes a last-minute witness for the defense. I won't give away too much, but her motivation for doing what she does is totally inscrutable.
Lastly, there's the gruesome climax. It plays ludicrously, though De Mornay is allowed one last, good moment. Her hysteria at the peak of her ordeal is touchingly real. Otherwise, the whole thing feels forced and phony.
So does the movie.