Author's Note: This review is based on a screener disc provided by the releasing company, Anchor Bay. Therefore, any ratings for audio and video elements are tentative and subject to change, should I receive a final shelf copy of the film (please see Brian Orndorf's Standard and Blu-ray reviews for Beyond a Reasonable Doubt for final verdicts on those elements).
Well, at least that new RKO opening logo looks impressive. As for the rest of this woefully inadequate remake of the Fritz Lang classic, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, I'm sorry to say it's just a further indication that a director I was fond of decades ago has yet to conquer his herky-jerky, hit-or-miss reputation. Directed by Peter Hyams and starring Michael Douglas and some anonymous TV actors, 2009's Beyond a Reasonable Doubt came and went without a trace to movie theaters this past year, and it's not surprising, considering most moviegoers saw any number of similarly plotted and executed actioners way back in the 70s and 80s, where Hyams' screenwriting and directorial styles unfortunately appear to be stuck. A complete and utter waste of time, sad to say.
Shreveport, Louisiana TV reporter C.J. Nicholas (Jesse Metcalfe) has a hard-on for ultra-self-possessed District Attorney Mark Hunter (Michael Douglas). Believing Hunter to be "too smooth and not honest" (with absolutely no proof except for a hunch), C.J. believes that Hunter is manufacturing DNA evidence after a crime is committed to seal the deals on his increasingly successful murder cases - which then raise his profile in his quest for his planned run for the governorship. Hitting on one of Hunter's assistant D.A.s, Ella Crystal (Amber Tamblyn), C.J. thinks he may be able to get proof for his theory from the curiously blank Ella, but he has to settle instead for a steady stream of forced romantic banter and sleeping-over privileges. Ella believes C.J. is a good reporter - he won a prestigious national award for his heartbreaking story on an anonymous homeless woman who lost her baby and eventually, her own life - but she doesn't realize the extent to which C.J. is willing to go to prove that Hunter is crooked. C.J.'s friend, videographer Corey Finley (Joel Moore), however, is well aware of C.J.'s obsession: he's agreed to go along with C.J.'s plan of deliberately planting evidence on C.J. to implicate the reporter for an unsolved murder, hoping later to prove that Hunter sweetened the pot with trumped-up DNA evidence to convict C.J.. Will C.J.'s stupid plan work, or will he go down for a murder he didn't commit?
MAJOR SPOILERS' ALERT!
If you truly want to watch Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (what is wrong with you?) and you don't want the ending spoiled for you, read no further. All set? Okay. Now that those people are gone: who the hell couldn't figure out that C.J. was the murderer all along? Forget seeing the original Fritz Lang classic (I saw a 'scope print of it back in college - it plays better that way than the normal cropped version that shows up on TV from time to time). After all, Hyams could have done something original and changed-up the ending (like maybe having Ella be guilty). But even the most laid-back moviegoer can see Hyams' set-up of C.J. as the killer from a mile off (early on in the film, the calls from a mysterious woman to C.J.'s workplace and C.J.'s limping out of bed, indicating the dog at the scene of the crime bit him, the murderer, pretty much convinced a friend of mine who watched this with me...and he can't figure out your average Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries episode). I only picked up this screener because I was shocked to see it was directed by Peter Hyams, whom I swear I read an obituary for a few years back; I honestly thought he was dead. So when I saw him listed as Beyond a Reasonable Doubt's helmer, I was curious to see how the undead directed a film. In the past, you were never quite sure what you were going to get with a Peter Hyams film. 1974's Busting is one of the best cop buddy films out there, with a truly spectacular tracking-shot foot chase as the memorable action set piece (along with good work from co-stars Elliott Gould and Robert Blake). And 1977's Capricorn One - rerun constantly on basic cable back in the 70s and 80s - is a viewer favorite that still plays just as funny and silly as it did over thirty years ago. But Hyams never could nail down a consistent string of hits, with misses like the boring Peeper, the mushy Hanover Square, the derivative Outland (which had another spectacular central foot-chase sequence...and little else), and the downright junky The Star Chamber (his first teaming with Michael Douglas) and The Presidio, filling up his resume. I enjoyed his double-teaming with Jean-Claude Van Damme in 1994's Time CopSudden Death, but none of his later work impressed me.
And Beyond a Reasonable Doubt is no different. This is surprisingly tired filmmaking (considering the can't-miss story), with a depressingly staid, removed quality to the scripting (by Hyams), to the cinematography (again, Hyams), and to the direction, that references none of the junky-but-pacey films he directed decades ago. Hyams, never good with remakes and sequels (his other update of a film noir classic, The Narrow Margin, was an embarrassing vehicle for Gene Hackman in 1990, while the spotty Outland was nothing more than High Noon in Space. The less said about 2010 the better), can't seem to summon up any energy for this product, either in the performances or in the sequences' pacing. We could discuss the frequently ludicrous script that never properly grounds the film's central thesis (how and why, exactly, did C.J. get such an obsession with Hunter?), or the obvious, stupid things that the characters do (seriously - the camera guy wouldn't make like, 50 copies of that disc and stash them with every friend/lawyer/newspaperman he knew?) or say (that "romantic" bantering between Metcalfe and Tamblyn is grimly unconvincing). Or just the disregard for how the justice system works today in context with this kind of case (why does Hyams try to create a feeling that C.J.'s life is going to be snuffed out by the State at any minute? It takes decades for death-row appeal processes to play out...let alone months and years for just the trials, which seem to be over in a matter of days in Beyond a Reasonable Doubt). Or the downright insulting coincidences that are used to tie up loose, unresolved plot threads (I love the ridiculously-cast Orlando Jones as the cop showing up magically to blow away Hunter's henchman, stating sheepishly as his only explanation for this unbelievable turn of events that he "never did trust that guy." Huh???).
All of that would be fair game to help nail down Beyond a Reasonable Doubt as one of the worst remakes I've seen in quite some time. But the final straw has to be the lead performances here. One could, I suppose, forgive Tamblyn's turn here since her part is, to say the least, underwritten and badly motivated (she hops into bed with Metcalfe just because he goofily stares at her? I'm staring at you right now, Amber...). And Douglas is obviously picking up a check; Hyams doesn't even give him a big, final climatic scene in the film when he's busted for his misdeeds - just a brief montage of him being arrested in court (is this the best part Douglas can pick up at this point in his career?). But Metcalfe is in almost every scene, and he's stunningly poor. Like some contemptuous frat boy who signs up for the college play on a dare from his fraternity brothers, Metcalfe oozes an nauseating insincerity that, coupled with his amateurish, frantic gesticulating (he gorps often at the camera and never forgets to wave his arms for what I assume he thinks is dramatic emphasis), clearly indicates that he simply can not act to save his life. Why he was chosen for this role, I don't know (no one else wanted it?), but on the basis of this turn, perhaps we'll get lucky and not see him again on the big screen. As for Hyams, I guess I'm still waiting for a return to form...or is Beyond a Reasonable Doubt a return to form?
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.