Beyond a Reasonable Doubt Review
I’ve always favoured the English legal system over pretty much every other legal system in the world. It’s easy to put that down to some inherent bias, or patriotism, but it really does come down to the way it works. You go to France, and it feels like you’re guilty until proven innocent, you go to the States, and alleged criminals get a comparatively easy ride – the so-called ‘Grand Jury’, which is anything but, acting as a jury to decide whether the case should go to the jury. And illegally obtained evidence? Have you seen Dirty Harry? At least in the UK we only have one trial, with one jury. And even if evidence is obtained by questionable means, that does not affect its probative value. In other words, if the Police don’t get a warrant, but still discover a smoking gun, with fingerprints all over it and a ballistics match to the victim, it doesn’t just get summarily excluded because of the lack of a warrant. Yes, no legal system completely works – you’re generally either going to end up locking up more criminals with a few innocent people amidst them, or you’re going to end up locking up less criminals, and thus less innocent people – but I like our system.
One of the many things that the US and UK legal systems actually agree upon, however, is the burden of proof. In Civil law cases (think Erin Brokovich – i.e lawsuits), it is quite simply the balance of probabilities. In other words, 51% to 49% – it all comes down to which side you believe more. In Criminal cases, the standard is very different, very much higher – Beyond a reasonable doubt. It is often described using slightly odd, legally-flavoured phrases like “the jury must be satisfied so that they feel sure”, but it basically means that no other logical conclusion can be derived from the evidence provided, other than that the accused is guilty, i.e. there can be no reasonable doubt.
In 1956, acclaimed German Director Fritz Lang (best remembered for his seminal early sci-fi, Metropolis) shot his last American film, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. A nice little film noir, its Hitchcockian twists battled hard to outweigh its improbable narrative, and quite frankly lost. Never a great fan of remakes, I have to admit that remaking a distinctly unexceptional – and relatively obscure – 50s film noir /courtroom drama is far from the worst thing that Hollywood has done over the last decade or so in terms of lack of imagination (Planet of the Apes, Psycho, The Wicker Man etc.). And getting Director Peter Hyams on board was surely not a bad idea? Whilst not a massively recognised auteur, he did ok with his tense remake of Narrow Margin starring Gene Hackman, and his reworking of High Noon – Sean Connery’s Outland – is pretty damn enjoyable too. But those were both made over 20 years ago, and since then Hyams has been mostly known for doing two of the better Jean Claude Van Damme action vehicles (Timecop and Sudden Death), which isn’t necessarily a high achievement. So can he breathe new life into this half-Century-old material, which didn’t particularly work first time round, or should he have left well alone and gone back to helping his son do yet another perfectly watchable Universal Soldier sequel?
C.J. Nicholas is an ambitious young journalist looking for his big break. An avid follower of unstoppable District Attorney Mark Hunter, C.J. does not trust the lawyer’s recent perfect conviction rate. Suspecting Hunter of falsifying DNA evidence in order to win cases and, off a tremendous track record, spark up a successful political career, C.J begins unofficially investigating the too-good-to-be-true DA. But with no conclusive evidence, and no support from his disbelieving Editor, he is forced to take drastic steps to get to the truth and reveal the corruption: planting evidence to suggest that he is a murder suspect himself, and waiting to see if Hunter takes the bait and frames him to get a quick conviction. With a very real murder charge against him, will this young buck really manage to take down the wily old veteran, or will the old master outwit him and see him sent to death row?
I really wanted to like Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, I really did. It had a promising concept – on paper – and certainly had the potential to be of comparable quality to the decent if unexceptional Anthony Hopkins / Ryan Gosling courtroom drama / murder thriller Fracture. I know that the story is improbable. Highly improbable. In fact, it’s downright ludicrous, but if they had tweaked the original story a little, brought in the twist earlier on, and cemented it with a better explanation...well, it might have worked. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. What you’re looking at here is a massively flawed, often tedious, and totally unsatisfactory production which is likely to disappear into the abyss the same way that the original did.
Casting Jesse Metcalfe in the lead role was one of the biggest mistakes the filmmakers made. I suppose it would have been hard to actually find a semi-decent star who would have agreed to do such a poorly plotted film, but picking up this obscure TV bit-part actor (probably best known for his contributions to Desperate Housewives!) was truly dredging the bottom of the barrel. His acting skills range from pretty-boy smirk to dumbfounded Neanderthal, and that’s nowhere near enough to carry a lead role in this medium-budget feature film. Of course it does not help that he has an awful part to play, his dialogue stilted and his actions often inexplicable, but where a greater actor may have had the presence of mind to actually question the flaws in what they were trying to get him to do, Metcalfe just sits back and smirks his way through. Truly lame.
Supporting him we get Amber Tamblyn, the unconventionally pretty redhead from the beginning of the Ring remake, who also pops up in Danny Boyle’s upcoming 127 hours. She’s got a fairly big role, but it seems relatively inconsequential (until the third act), and she plays it practically comatose. It does not help at all that she and Metcalfe showcase zero chemistry, their odd dinner-table exchanges coming across as neither cute nor genuine.
Then there’s the big name on the cover, Michael Douglas. Always watchable, the films he does do not always share that same trait. I’m glad he’s finally had something of a twilight-era comeback with this year’s decent Wall Street sequel although he simply has not done enough good movies in the last 20 years. Here he appears to have been brought in for about 3 days’ worth of filming. He grandstands his way through a couple of court cases, suitably slick as the veteran DA, but he never really comes to life as a villain at all. Which is surely what he is, when you consider the lengths that he goes to in order to further his career? It just doesn’t make any sense, there isn’t enough motivation here, and they don’t give you enough character development to make you believe any of the things that happen. He’s so utterly wasted in the role, the end conclusion fast-tracked in a blink-or-you’ll-miss-it blur which just does not work when you compare it to the slow-burning, montage-packed first act.
And I expected more from Peter Hyams. He wrote the screenplay, and then Directed what he wrote, and he should have known better when he put pen to paper. Despite adopting quite a nice modern film noir style, slow-burning the whole affair in a way that made you feel like you were watching a Hitchcockian production, he should have checked his own damn script before attempting to cover up the inherent problems with reasonable decent camerawork. And if Fritz Lang could not make the implausible plot fully work back in the fifties, I’m not sure how Hyams thought he would pull it off (without any significant changes) for a modern generation of moviegoers who simply demand much more from the films they watch these days.
It’s difficult to really discuss the flaws in the script in more detail without giving away massive spoilers but, suffice to say, the plot-holes that occur across the narrative are more than I have come across in any other movie over the last few years. It’s very poorly constructed indeed. I have no idea how not a single one of the near-20 producers involved in the movie noticed the problems right at the outset. Just read the script. IT MAKES NO SENSE. Even a couple of competent car chase sequences (both perpetrated by a corrupt cop who is the most ludicrously skilful driver you could possibly imagine), a reasonably nice film noir-throwback style with some Hitchcockian twists, and a grandstanding Michael Douglas, could not save this doomed-from-the-script production. Monumentally disappointing, it’s an absolute failure on almost every single level, and I would advise that you steer well clear unless you intentionally yearn to be massively frustrated. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, this is a terrible movie.