“Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” is so overheated – even outlandish – at times that you can’t help but laugh at its histrionics.
An old pro like Peter Hyams knows how to crank up the suspense when he needs to – even the mechanical suspense this film contains. Which makes “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” a movie that keeps you watching, in spite of yourself at times, to see what trashy gem might come next, right up to its misdirection-fueled conclusion.
Based on a 1956 Fritz Lang film, Hyams’ version has a modern gloss of corruption and violence. This film looks at the clash of two overly ambitious men: Martin Hunter (Michael Douglas) and C.J. Nicholas (Jesse Metcalfe).
Hunter is the district attorney in Shreveport, La. He’s got an unbroken string of 17 death-penalty convictions and has plans to run for governor. Nicholas is a TV reporter for whom Shreveport was a career step up (from Buffalo) – but whose investigative reporting unit has just been ashcanned by his boss for budgetary reasons.
Nicholas tells his boss he’s convinced that Hunter is fabricating forensic material to win verdicts otherwise built on circumstantial evidence. He wants to use a camera crew to prove it – a request his boss vetoes.
So Nicholas convinces his producer pal Corey (Joel David Moore) to go after Hunter alone – by framing himself for murder. He’ll create circumstantial evidence that will implicate him in an otherwise unremarkable murder – a hooker or a homeless person. Once on trial – once Hunter has introduced obviously faked forensic proof, Nicholas will bring forward his own evidence – footage of himself planning the hoax and purchasing his props – and close the trap on Hunter.
All well and good – until something happens to Corey on his way to court and the evidence of Nicholas’ innocence is destroyed. Without it, Nicholas winds up on Death Row, with his only his girlfriend (Amber Tamblyn) – who just happens to be an assistant D.A. – to possibly believe in his innocence and save him from execution.
Though this is set in contemporary times (the TV reporter was a newspaper reporter in the 1956 version), Hyams gives it almost a period feel, with semi-corny visual montages set to even cornier music – and with operatic romantic talk that can’t help but make you giggle.
Metcalfe and Tamblyn are serviceable as the young lovers, though Tamblyn has more of a sense of mystery to her than Metcalfe does. Douglas, the old pro, exudes menace with each sharklike smile, but his is only a supporting role.
Hyams, who also wrote the script, builds to a pair of action climaxes – but both of those sequences are predictable and implausible, an adjective that would also work for most of the rest of the script.
Speaking of implausible, Hyams’ script includes several mentions of Nicholas angling to win a Pulitzer Prize for his undercover report. That would be quite a feat, given that Pulitzers aren’t given for TV work.
Still, Hyams knows how to build a mousetrap with some snap to it: In this case, it’s an unexpected ending that makes you rethink what you’ve seen before. But can a great surprise at the end make up for all of the earlier flaws?
Only if you’ve got ADD.