An enjoyably slick but entirely soulless update of Fritz Lang’s controversial 1956 noir, “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” drags screaming into the light much that Lang wisely left in the shadows. “Reasonable Doubt’s” culpability is blindingly obvious: Noisy and excessive where the original was hushed and restrained, and wholly devoid of mystique, this brash and nervously busy Michael Douglas vehicle is presumably intended for youth auds more familiar with protag Jesse Metcalfe than with one-eyed German Expressionists. Pic opens Sept. 11 Stateside, after international bow in Spain, with the Douglas factor unlikely to generate more than passing interest.
Having just relocated from New York to Louisiana, ambitious TV reporter C.J. Nichols (Metcalfe) is brazenly pursuing a Pulitzer, even as he and his dorky sidekick, Corey Finley (Joel David Moore), are stuck with routine assignments. Nichols is also pursuing rookie lawyer Ella Farrell (Amber Tamblyn), who is fairly irrelevant to the plot until the last half-hour. Ella’s boss, district attorney Martin Hunter (Douglas), has his sights set on the governorship, having won 17 straight cases, all victories based on DNA evidence.
Fifty years on, the inventive central concept of Lang and original scenarist Douglas Morrow retains its compelling symmetry. Nichols’ head-turning plan, revealed and executed at considerably greater length than in the original film (perhaps a concession to contempo skepticism), is to set himself up as a murder suspect in the hope Hunter will introduce false DNA evidence, so that Nichols will be able to expose the D.A.’s corruption. His chance comes with the murder of a “black junkie hooker” — someone whom, in a phrase of Nichols’ unlikely to endear us to him, “nobody cares about.”
Nichols’ preparations involve the purchase of all the circumstantial evidence that will attach him to the crime. These scenes have a mostly crass humor entirely absent from the original, which at least serve to counterbalance the character’s own unsavory motives..
Once Nichols has gotten himself arrested and into the courtroom, where Hunter and Nichols’ defense attorney (David Jensen) trade the standard licks, the twists, one of them visually spectacular, come fast and thick. Original pic was fundamentally an issue movie about the death penalty, characterized by its intense focus and exploitation of few dramatic elements. Writer-director Peter Hyams has jettisoned both mood and minimalism. And in this case, more — more characters, more plot twists, more genre mixing, and yes, more (admittedly well-staged) car chases — achieves less.
Hemmed in by political correctness, the character work suffers from a lack of imagination (black guys are mostly good, fat guys are suspicious, women are smart) and never engages any emotional depth. Physically, Metcalfe is not unlike Dana Andrews, and he has the same hard eyes, suggesting psychological trouble afoot. But he remains pretty unlikable, while the script provides no real access to his emotions. Metcalfe’s romantic scenes with a mostly insubstantial Tamblyn are clumsy and cursory; overall, rarely has the fate of a man accused of murder seemed to matter so little.
We learn pretty much all we need to know about Douglas’ Hunter within the first five minutes, and there is no change thereafter, leaving the thesp free to strut, hawk-like, around the courtroom, being brilliant, witty and entirely one-dimensional; the scariest thing about Hunter is his hairstyle, which leaves the pic’s supposed criticism of the judicial system stuck at soap-opera level.
The script briefly raises the issue of belief in appearances over truth, and the legal ramifications of this, before abandoning it in search of the next twist. A fleeting reference to Guantanamo is hardly enough to persuade the viewer that the pic might actually be about anything other than entertainment.
Lang famously disliked “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” because of its imposed final scene, which was implausible and undermined his message. In the remake, the final revelation remains, and though it has at least been better signaled, it still feels like one twist too many.