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Reviewer watches 'True Crime' grind to slow death

March 25, 1999
Web posted at: 11:26 a.m. EST (1626 GMT)

By Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- It's something of an over-simplification, of course, but I've always felt that there are two basic approaches to telling a story on film. There's the plot-driven way, in which a three act structure - Ask an interesting question/Make it exciting as the audience awaits an answer/Answer the question - has the audience wondering what might happen next. The sense of anticipation is why they keep paying attention.

Then there's the character-driven technique, in which the nuances of the protagonist's thought processes are what's keeping things afloat. The story can't be non-existent in this kind of movie, but it's not the main focus of attention. Think of stuff like "Taxi Driver." It's a stunning film, but what's it really "about" besides the twisted mind of a lonely man?

Theatrical preview for "True Crime"
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Among many other things, Clint Eastwood's new movie, "True Crime," would have benefited greatly from a clear decision as to which format should goose the plot into action. Eastwood directed, and that explains the movie's near-glacial pacing, but this is a downright awful screenplay, one that suffers from clichéd characters, simplistic revelations, inappropriate comic relief, and a steadfastly bizarre sense of what's important from one minute to the next.

It was written by Larry Gross, Paul Brickman, and Stephen Schiff, and (once again) Hollywood's penchant for passing the baton from writer to writer has resulted in something that more closely resembles a stew than a movie.

Even Eastwood is miscast

It's all wrong; Eastwood is even miscast. And he gives one of his poorest performances. He plays a reformed alcoholic newspaper reporter named Steve Everett who's considered to be such a loser by his bosses (James Woods and Denis Leary), he only receives the job of writing a human interest piece on a condemned man (Isaiah Washington) after the original reporter dies in a car crash.

One of the pointless subplots has to do with Everett's philandering, and his most recent conquest is actually Leary's character's wife. When Leary finds out about it, the revelation leads to some smartsy repartee and a couple of sexist jokes from Woods, but the fireworks are evidently being kept in storage for the Fourth of July. It amounts to absolutely nothing.

The ladies' man angle is a little too much to bear right off the bat, and the audience was actually groaning over it. Eastwood may have some craggy good looks left on him, but the sight of our hero lolling around on a bed with his shirt off as a woman half his age runs her hands over his supposedly alluring torso is a tad more than ridiculous. (His skin looks like bark that's been stretched over an outrigger canoe frame.)

Everett is also supposed to have recently lost his job at The New York Times for having slept with the boss' 18-year-old daughter. That makes her one quarter as old as the High Plains Drifter, folks. It's embarrassing. There's not a .44 Magnum in sight, but Eastwood still wants us to be impressed with his big gun.

The movie is purportedly about Everett's attempts to prove the prisoner's innocence just 12 hours before he's to be executed, but he doesn't even come face-to-face with the guy until 65 minutes into the movie (I checked my watch.) Before that you get lame little character interludes, like a weird bit of business with a wino in front of the newspaper office and cute conversations with Eastwood's laconic co-workers.

Then there's the visit to the zoo that Eastwood is forced to take with his young daughter. It turns out to be nothing more than an extended gag that isn't particularly funny, then we're back to inelegant cross-cuts between the tearful family at the prison and Eastwood's attempts to unravel the mystery of who actually did the killing.

Woods' "character" (he eats junk food and yells a lot) makes a sarcastic, disbelieving remark about the feasibility of Clint digging up clues in 45 minutes that nobody involved in the case managed to sniff out in the past six years, and I'll be damned if I didn't wholeheartedly agree with him.

Shockingly unfocused

I have to say, I was honestly shocked at how unfocused and derivative this thing is. Half the scenes seem like wandering time-fillers, and the ones that have some life to them aren't much more intriguing than your average episode of "The Streets of San Francisco."

But it's the insistence on marching out those oddball characters that have basically zero effect on the proceedings that really threw me. Foremost among them is a Catholic priest played by Michael McKean who's just an unctuous jerk. His scene in which he "comforts" Washington, only to drive him into a rage, is plain stupid. I honestly had my jaw hanging open on several occasions.

As a director, Eastwood is definitely on a losing streak. "True Crime" is not as morbidly uninteresting as "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" was, but that's hardly the same as saying that it's worth watching. I kept hoping that the formerly dirty Harry would finally get around to punching someone. Maybe a team of screenwriters.

There's bad language in "True Crime," and the sight of a pregnant woman who's been shot in the neck. I mean it when I say that the scariest moment is when Eastwood comes strolling out of the bathroom with his shirt off. I'm not making fun of a person for aging (and I could only hope to have Eastwood's charisma when I'm 70), but maybe he needs to leave the girls to Woody Allen. His supposed standing as a sex symbol never made sense. Rated R. 127 minutes.

"True Crime" is a production of CNN Interactive sister company Warner Bros., a Time Warner property.

Eastwood gets old flame to commit to 'True Crimes'
May 1, 1998
Review: Expect saddle sores from 'Horse Whisperer'
May 19, 1998

Official 'True Crime' site
Warner Bros. Movies
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