With a straight-ahead, no-nonsense approach to match its stars, “Double Jeopardy” is single-minded and engaging thriller storytelling without an afterglow. Though hardly an original stroke, “The Rock” co-scenarists David Weisberg and Douglas S. Cook turn the old “Death Wish” revenge fantasy formula on its head by making a strong woman the rooting interest to get justice by any means necessary. In the first studio project in which she’s front and center throughout, Ashley Judd makes her woman scorned an impressive star turn that is equal measures sinewy, determinedly focused and graceful, a yin to Tommy Lee Jones’ patented gruff yang as the parole officer tracking her down. Utterly pro and ideally cast in major roles, pic delivers action but few surprises to generate the kind of buzz needed to fill cinemas for many weeks through a busy fall season. Paramount should expect respectable but not dazzling numbers in theatrical phase, with a nifty chase to major coin later in vid.
Judd’s rise to stardom is the most interesting element here, and while this marks her second standard-issue thriller in a row after the forgettable “Kiss the Girls,” current pic is both a better example of the genre and offers the versatile thesp a far greater challenge, which she grabs and literally runs with. While Judd has yet to find the ideal role for her to balance an almost startling intelligence with a physical power unusual among her peers, this yarn gives her plenty of scenery to chew and blow away. Direction by Bruce Beresford is so unassumingly assured that it barely registers that the thriller is a marked change of pace from his more humanistic, character-driven projects.
Script, though, serves up some nice character business and humor from the outset, when Libby (Judd) is enjoying a fund-raiser party thrown at her and hubby Nick’s (Bruce Greenwood) awesome Whidbey Island, Wash., pad. She yearningly looks at a sailboat with 4-year-old son Matty (Benjamin Weir), not realizing that spendthrift Nick has bought one for her. A seemingly throwaway party moment, as Nick wittily explains to a clueless yuppie couple about his cherished originals by the father of abstract painting, Wassily Kandinsky, hints at a slightly smarter-than-average thriller and proves to be crucial to plotline.
Hints are dropped that Nick’s in hot financial water and that marriage is shaky, but couple seems sexy and happy as they take boat out for a spin. Hours after lovemaking, however, Libby wakes in a blood-stained bed and finds blood on everything including a knife — but no Nick. On cue, the Coast Guard appears as Libby holds the knife.
Despite a positively Jackie O.-like appearance and a convincingly emotional speech on the witness stand, with curiously little effort expended by her defense attorney Bobby (Jay Brazeau), Libby is convicted of murder.
Believing she’s placing Matty in good hands with family friend Angie (Annabeth Gish), Libby gives her custody of the child, but loses contact with either of them once she’s behind bars. Chase is essentially on even during incarceration, when Libby takes tips from ex-lawyer inmate Margaret (Roma Maffia) on how she can get an address for Angie. Libby’s phone call throws off Angie, as Nick arrives at her San Francisco home just as Matty is talking to Mom, who now realizes that she’s been framed and starts working out like she’s in Olympic trials for the Revenge event. Though title refers to w.k. legal dictum which prevents a previously convicted person of being charged with same crime a second time, this is apparently news to Libby, as Margaret fills her in on the not-very-startling business, which means that Nick can be murdered sans punishment.
In the typically ultra-tidy style of this narrative, Libby gets paroled with no problem after doing six years and not looking worse for the wear. Parole officer Travis (Jones) is all business as Libby soon observes, even as she learns that Travis himself was jerked around by his former spouse and is separated from his own child. This doesn’t stop Libby from going back to Whidbey Island and pilfering files at Angie’s school for her latest address. Short but gripping chase by cops over island dunes puts Libby back in Travis’ grasp, but not for long, as she is able to make a watery escape.
It’s “Fugitive” time again for Jones, and while he looks a bit like an actor wondering if he’s having deja vu all over again, he injects every scene during a lengthy pursuit from the Northwest to New Orleans with a wry, ironic wit. This is all new, though, for Judd, who looks and acts pumped for action, just eluding her pursuer every step of the way. Kandinsky again pops up in the plot for a key and clever twist in an amusing art gallery scene that has energy of best moments from the “Lethal Weapon” series, contrasted with some elegant noirish touches as Libby ingeniously crashes a gala New Orleans affair to finally confront an embarrassed Nick.
After a long absence from story, Greenwood’s bad guy takes center stage and imbues pic with an oily presence that this excellent Canadian thesp clearly enjoys. Disturbing Libby-Nick encounter in rotting city cemetery leads to the feisty damsel locked in a coffin with a corpse from which, of course, she finds an escape. Travis finally puts two and two together and, realizing that Libby has been innocent all along, helps turn the tables on Nick in the kind of parlor scene Sidney Greenstreet might have relished.
Judd, Jones and Greenwood deserve more than this crafted but basic paint-by-numbers thriller vehicle, but they are by no means slumming their way through. Beresford is less interested in visual razzle-dazzle than in staging the heavily plotted story as handsomely as possible. But despite fine casting and the consistently pro approach, familiarity sets in and lack of surprises directly lessen what could have been emotionally gripping.
Vivid Brit Columbia locales stand in for Washington setting. This incidentally raises an interesting retrospective plot question about why Nick and Angie didn’t simply flee to nearby Canada, making it infinitely harder for Libby to track them down. Craftsmanlike credits include a stately score from Canadian composer Normand Corbeil and pretty lensing care of regular Beresford d.p. Peter James.