A Noir Classic Revisited In 'Reasonable Doubt'

W Michael Douglas points i i

You Can Probably Handle the Truth: District Attorney Mark Hunter (Michael Douglas) wants to use his reputation as a "Good Old Boy" to run for governor. Will he stop at nothing to win? BAR Doubt, LLC hide caption

itoggle caption BAR Doubt, LLC
W Michael Douglas points

You Can Probably Handle the Truth: District Attorney Mark Hunter (Michael Douglas) wants to use his reputation as a "Good Old Boy" to run for governor. Will he stop at nothing to win?

BAR Doubt, LLC

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

  • Director: Peter Hyams
  • Genre: Drama, Mystery, Crime
  • Running Time: 105 minutes

Rated PG-13: for violence, sexual activity, strong language and the general erosion of classic cinema

With: Michael Douglas, Jesse Metcalfe, Amber Tamblyn, Joel David Moore

The gushy production notes for Peter Hyams' remake of Fritz Lang's Beyond a Reasonable Doubt suggest that Hyams set out to rework a noir classic for kids. Film heritage plus desirable demographics in one shiny new package; what's not to like?

Let me count the ways. For one thing, Lang's 1956 thriller — about an allegedly noble journalist setting a trap for a possibly crooked lawyer — was, to put it mildly, a creature of its time. In the age of Jayson Blair, Eliot Spitzer and their disgraced ilk, it's hard to surprise young people with a yarn about corruption in high places, even when it's festooned with tech-toys and timely references to a sagging economy.

For another, Hyams — director of hackishly competent thrillers such as Timecop and The Star Chamber, to say nothing of his ill-considered sequel to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey — is no Fritz Lang, a master integrator of form, mood and substance with a mature feel for the complications of human folly.

Jesse Metcalfe, who made Eva Longoria's day as a libidinous gardener on television's Desperate Housewives, is no Dana Andrews, either. Buff and oozing callow charm, Metcalfe plays C.J. Nicholas, a hungry, up-from-nowhere cub reporter who plans to make a splash by setting up district attorney Mark Hunter (Michael Douglas), whom he suspects of planting false evidence to secure his convictions. Armed with the usual dweeby sidekick (Joel David Moore) and lots of technology — without which Lang managed to wrap up his version in 80 minutes — C.J. frames himself as a murder suspect in order to trap the D.A. The usual unintended consequences turn the joke back on the reporter, who, after far too much ado, finds himself behind bars and looking at a death sentence.

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Sweating under bright lights, Jesse Metcalfe (left) and his sidekick (Joel David Moore, right) scheme about how best to beat a shifty district attorney at his own game. Rico Torres/BAR Doubt, LLC hide caption

itoggle caption Rico Torres/BAR Doubt, LLC
Metcalfe on a roof

Sweating under bright lights, Jesse Metcalfe (left) and his sidekick (Joel David Moore, right) scheme about how best to beat a shifty district attorney at his own game.

Rico Torres/BAR Doubt, LLC

Thus does the burden of uncovering who's lying fall on Ella Crystal (Amber Tamblyn), a luckless beauty who has slipped between C.J.'s rumpled sheets while still conveniently employed as Hunter's assistant D.A. Her task involves more heavy lifting than it should, given that Hyams — who, in addition to doing his own cinematography, wrote the lumbering screenplay ("This is the diem we have to carpe!") — has been winking strenuously at us all along, with broad hints that only the dullest moviegoer could miss.

Any film noir worth its salt features plenty of atmosphere to fall back on. Far from achieving the shadowy elegance for which the old RKO movies were famous, his digital camera achieves a sort of grimy vagueness. Beyond a Reasonable Doubt is set in Shreveport, La., but it might as well be Hackensack for all the sense of place the film generates.

Like the decent B-movie director that he is, Hyams tosses in two gripping car chases and blows up a few more vehicles for good measure. But otherwise, there's little in this pointless rehash to distract audiences from the pleasure of watching Tamblyn, a fine young actress whose direct, grownup stare belies her baby features. That face may look newly hatched, but it's signaling, "Mess with me at your peril." So far, Tamblyn has outshone the decent films in which she's appeared — like the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants movies and the small indie drama Stephanie Daley, in which she more than held her own against Tilda Swinton. If she can do that while still in her early 20s, then she deserves better than the opportunity to channel Veronica Lake for Peter Hyams.

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