'Beyond A Reasonable Doubt': Soft-Boiled, By Kurt Loder

An undercooked crime flick whose real mystery is why it was made.

The only thing that distinguishes "Beyond a Reasonable Doubt" from the cheesiest of TV cop-and-courtroom shows is the fact that you're expected to pay money to see it. It takes a brave man to dare to attempt a remake of even a lesser film noir by the great Fritz Lang, and director Peter Hyams is obviously that man. He's just as obviously not the right man.

Hyams is candid about wanting to appeal to a young demographic here, and this is the source of the movie's problems. The characters in the old noir films of the '40s and '50s had mileage on them — they had a past; they'd lived, often disreputably. Casting Jesse Metcalfe, of "Desperate Housewives," in the lead role of a sharp reporter out to bust a crooked DA is like asking Lance Bass to play Robert Mitchum. True, Metcalfe's character, C.J. Nicholas, is a standard TV news hunk (the original film was set in the harder-boiled world of newspapers); but still, his yogurty persona is as far from noir as you can get without spending a day at the beach. And this presents co-star Amber Tamblyn ("Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants") with a challenge she's really not up to. She plays Ella Crystal, an assistant district attorney whose dodgy boss is the man C.J. has in his sights. But after Ella falls for C.J. with a mystifying instantaneousness (we wonder if she hasn't been too long at the beach herself), and her sudden squeeze gets drawn ever closer toward what could be his doom, she's left with little to do but act increasingly distressed. As are we.

The story at least has a durable cleverness. C.J. suspects the D.A., Mark Hunter (Michael Douglas), of having rigged evidence in every one of the murder convictions he's obtained over the years — high-profile wins that he now hopes will propel him to the governorship of Louisiana. (The movie is set in Shreveport.) To test this theory, C.J. enlists the help of a news colleague named Corey (Joel Moore) in setting up a series of fake circumstantial clues in the town's latest murder case — all of which point to C.J. Corey documents each step of this scheme on video. And sure enough, after C.J. is arrested and put on trial for his life, Hunter, at the last minute, fabricates a piece of damning hard evidence of his guilt. At this point, Corey is supposed to come running into court brandishing a DVD demonstrating how all the circumstantial clues were contrived, thus getting C.J. off the hook and nailing Hunter to the wall. But when the crucial moment arrives, Corey is nowhere to be seen. Where could he be? (Spoiler: He's been swept up in a 1970s-style car chase of the most leadenly perfunctory sort.)

So Hunter sends yet another innocent man to death row. Or does he? The movie's artfully kinked ending, while no longer entirely fresh, does provide a certain formal satisfaction — although by the time it arrives, we barely care.

The most entertaining thing about this misbegotten enterprise is to be found in the movie's production notes. There, Michael Douglas, the wily old pro, cheerfully explains what drew him to this picture: His role, it turns out, was written in such a way that it would require very little of his actual presence on the set — he could be in and out and cashing the check before anyone noticed he hadn't returned from the craft-services table. Very clever. And I suppose we should be happy that we're only being asked to shell out a tiny fraction of his big-star fee for a ticket. On the other hand, we don't have to shell out anything at all.

Don't miss Kurt Loder's reviews of "Whiteout," "The Informant!," "Jennifer's Body" and "The Burning Plain," also in theaters this week.

Check out everything we've got on "Beyond a Reasonable Doubt."

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