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True Crime

Friday March 19, 1999

     There's only one Clint Eastwood (more's the pity) but two kinds of Clint Eastwood movies. Alongside steely-eyed, hard-bitten items like "The Outlaw Josey Wales" and "Unforgiven," Eastwood has periodically directed softer, more sweet-natured ruminations like "Honkytonk Man" and the underappreciated "Bronco Billy." His latest, "True Crime," has elements of both. It's a gritty story made in the director's more elegiacal mode, a confusion of style and content that is not in the film's best interests.
     At its heart, "True Crime," based on a novel by Andrew Klavan, is a time-is-running-out thriller in which a weary old warhorse of a reporter (guess who) has to fight the clock to determine if a man waiting on death row is in fact the person who committed the crime he's about to be executed for.
     Sounds exciting, and at moments it is. But Eastwood, who produced and directed as well as starred, has put "True Crime" together in a languid, leisurely manner that tends to emphasize character moments over tension. It's a scheme that results in some strong scenes, but overall what's on the screen ends up caught between two stools, not involving enough emotionally to make up for its lack of overriding tension.
     Eastwood plays Steve Everett, an investigative reporter with a celebrated nose for the truth and a well-defined upper body despite an equally legendary appetite for womanizing and alcohol. Recently sober, he's at the Oakland Tribune because Alan Mann (James Woods), the paper's editor in chief, thinks he's one of the best.
     City editor Bob Findley (Denis Leary) is not interested in the past, he wants to know what Everett has done lately, which unfortunately includes going on a misguided crusade to free a guilty rapist. Having a "real dyed-in-the-wool son of a bitch" who drives a battered red junker on his staff is not to this editor's liking.
     "True Crime" intercuts introductory scenes of Everett with scenes at San Quentin, where convicted murderer Frank Beachum (Isaiah Washington) is being prepared for the death house. Though about to die for the murder of a young college student in a botched convenience store robbery, Beachum insists he did not do the crime.
     Ordinarily, a situation like this would never involve a hard news guy like Everett, but a quirk of fate has him pinch-hitting for another reporter and interviewing Beachum for a "human interest" sidebar to the main execution story.
     Almost as a reflex, Everett starts to pull the case apart, playing hunches and following leads. He checks out the crime scene, interrogates eyewitnesses and subjects everyone to his nonpareil steely gaze. When Everett visits San Quentin to interview the condemned man, he's impressed both by Beachum and his supportive wife, Bonnie ("Beloved's" Lisa Gay Hamilton).
     When it comes to his own family, Everett is in serious arrears. His wife, Barbara (Diane Venora), has lost patience with him, and he's been so neglectful of his little daughter Kate that he has to take her to the zoo right in the middle of trying to solve this crime with the execution mere hours away.
     Just as the zoo visit intrudes on Everett's investigative time, so that sequence, like many of the film's softer ones, stops "True Crime" in its tracks. Viewers who are not Eastwood loyalists may have trouble appreciating the director's fascination with these kinds of diversions.
     "True Crime's" inability to settle on a single direction is reflected in a writing credit that is shared by three screenwriters with widely different resumes: Larry Gross ("48 HRS."), Paul Brickman ("Risky Business") and Steven Schiff ("Lolita"). Similarly unfocused is the film's acting, with Gay Hamilton doing "True Crime's" best work as an anguished wife and Washington, as her husband, not far behind.
     Though it's impossible to do anything more than speculate about how much Eastwood may or may not have connected with his character's unstable romantic life and lack of time for his children, "True Crime" nevertheless feels like a very personal film for its producer-director-star.
     Not only did Eastwood shift the novel's St. Louis setting to Oakland, the city he grew up in, but he cast his wife, Dina, as a television newswoman; his daughter Francesa Fisher-Eastwood as his on-screen daughter Kate; and Francesa's mother, Francis Fisher, as a tough city attorney. Given all that, it's not to be wondered at that Eastwood is in no particular hurry with "True Crime." It's his family album, after all.


True Crime, 1999. R, for language and some violence. A Zanuck Co./Malpaso Production, released by Warner Bros. Director Clint Eastwood. Producers Clint Eastwood, Richard D. Zanuck & Lili Fini Zanuck. Executive producer Tom Rooker. Screenplay Larry Gross and Paul Brickman and Stephen Schiff, based on the novel by Andrew Klavan. Cinematographer Jack N. Green. Editor Joel Cox. Costume Supervisor Deborah Hopper. Music Lennie Niehaus. Production design Henry Bumstead. Art director Jack G. Taylor. Set decorator Richard Goddard. Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes. Clint Eastwood as Steve Everett. Isaiah Washington as Frank Beachum. Denis Leary as Bob Findley. Lisa Gay Hamilton as Bonnie. James Woods as Alan Mann.

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