High Crimes (2002)

Cynthia Fuchs

'High Crimes' is a movie starring Ashley Judd whom someone has determined is the ideal Flinty Woman in Danger.

High Crimes

Director: Carl Franklin
Cast: Ashley Judd, Morgan Freeman, Jim Caviezel, Amanda Peet, Adam Scott, Bruce Davison
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Twentieth Century-Fox
First date: 2002
US Release Date: 2002-04-05

Just when you think it's safe to trust the U.S. military again (at least according to CNN, et. al.), here comes another movie about corruption, subterfuge, and egomania run amok in the Marines. Carl Franklin's High Crimes concerns Clair Kubik (Ashley Judd), a self-assured, local-superstar San Francisco lawyer who discovers, under the direst of personal circumstances, that the Corps is a bastion of lunatics who are committed first and foremost to covering their own asses, with lethal force. Moreover, said lunatics believe with all their hearts that we "can't handle" knowing about their undercover, underhanded means of the defending the American Way. This newsflash horrifies Claire, who apparently missed A Few Good Men.

None of the smug, rancorous Marines in High Crimes makes such a memorable assertion of their principles, or quite so forcefully explain the myopic general public's need for their services. But the film is evidently banking on its audience getting the basic idea, in ways that poor Claire just never can. Maybe she's just too close to it all.

So as to underscore her learning curve, she starts off rather far away from it -- military culture, ethos, and rationales -- rather like most civilians. Or not. Claire is an exceptional civilian, in every way. Not only is she a brilliant defense attorney who gets her accused-rapist client a new trial by outwitting the prosecutor, and appear so photogenically on tv to boot, she also has a gorgeous home in Marin County, an expensive SUV, and a pretty husband named Tom (Jim Caviezel), introduced doing something in his workshop, meaning, I guess, that he's creative or good with his hands or something. Claire and Tom have the perfect relationship: they hold hands when they go Christmas shopping, and take time out of their schedules to "make a baby" when her self-test tells her she's ovulating, after which speed-sex session, she jumps in the SUV, sets up her day on her cell phone, then kicks butt at work; later that evening, she plays pool with hubby and watches herself on tv at the local bar, where everyone probably knows her name.

Claire's perfect existence is, of course, about to be shattered by those folks who commit high crimes for a living. Tom is suddenly arrested and charged with mass murder. Seems that his real name is Ron Something-or-other, and he was once a classified military operative whose squad was assigned to find a guerilla leader in Las Colinas, a teeny village in El Salvador, in 1988. Nine civilians were slaughtered, My Lai-style (the movie is based on a novel, by Joseph Finder, characterized on the film's website as "an expert on the CIA and international politics"), and the brass is still looking for a Calley-style scapegoat, 15 years later. Why, we'll never know. High Crimes is most definitely not interested in logic, and it's not exactly clear what it is interested in, except maybe broad ideological concepts, or moral indictments. It also wants to set up thrills, chills, and emotional climaxes, these hammered repeatedly by Graeme Revell's intrusive score.

Any surprises, though, only come when the film totally loses its mind (and sadly, that only happens a couple of times, briefly). For the most part, the plot turns are wholly predictable. After all, this is a movie starring Ashley Judd, whom someone has determined is the ideal Flinty Woman in Danger; see, for the most famous instance, Double Jeopardy. Moreover, it's an Ashley Judd movie co-starring Morgan Freeman, again as the stereotypically earnest and sexless mentor. To be fair, his Charlie Grimes is slightly different than the world-weary detective he played in Kiss the Girls: for one thing, Charlie's a down-on-his-luck, recovering-alcoholic, dog-loving, sneaky-smart attorney who's been drummed out of the Corps for assaulting an officer (of course, he had his own admirable reasons). And for another, he's got hair that stands up.

Claire meets Charlie because, quite preposterously, she decides to defend Tom/Ron at the court martial (Tom/Ron keeps telling her that she can't beat the system, which only fuels her desire to do so; gee, do you think this will figure in one of the plot turns?). She makes this decision when she sees that his designated attorney is First Lt. Embry (Adam Scott), who has never won a case and looks like he's 12. Claire decides that to get the job done, she needs someone who has tangled legally with the military before, and better, someone who's won against the military. Charlie is that guy, but he comes with the usual baggage, including anger at his old employers, a few leftover enmities, no decent suit, and oh yes, that drinking thing (which figures prominently in a couple of the predictable plot turns). Still, it must be said that watching Freeman and Judd together is a generally good thing: they are elegant and efficient performers, not a glance or finger to the temple wasted, unless, of course, you consider that they occur in the context of this movie.

Once Claire and Charlie dig into their defense, they discover (oh shocking!) some problems with Tom/Ron's story, which is illustrated in grainy flashback "footage" inserts, showing varying versions of what happened: either Tom/Ron kills everyone, or the man he's accusing does it, this man being a Latino officer with a portentous scar over his eye and permanent sneer on his face, one Major Hernandez (Juan Carlos Hernandez). Tom/Ron insists that his superiors are framing him, one being Hernandez's immediate boss, Brig. General Marks (Bruce Davison, who actually looks more sad than menacing).

Whenever Claire looks for "evidence," she finds herself facing any number of scary guys and in any number of dreadful situations (home invasion, car wreck, circling-camera revelation scene, etc.). And still, she falls again and again for Tom/Ron's recurring duplicity (I mean, even for a supposed Cipher Guy, his layers of lies are head-spinning, and obvious). I suppose she has her own admirable reasons, but they don't have much to do with the reality the film offers. For example: Tom/Ron wants so badly to preserve Claire's "trust" (after lying to her for years) that he takes and passes a polygraph test, even though it's inadmissible in the court martial. Minutes later, the more dismal "truth" descends on Claire, when she learns from a helpful, if baleful, nobody who sidles up to her in the supermarket, that special ops guys are trained to "beat the box." Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

In order to lighten the mood a little, and provide yet another damsel to be distressed, the film provides meticulous Claire with a tarted-up sister, Jackie (Amanda Peet, who is spectacularly, even unaccountably, bright in a very, very dull part). She's been evicted from her apartment, and so arrives on Claire's own re-located doorstep, near the Georgia Marine base where Tom/Ron's incarcerated. Jackie wears dramatic eye makeup, cute little knit tops and caps; and is not nearly so wealthy or self-righteous as her sister (which the film translates as "loose" and, eventually, nonjudgmental). She's a cute foil who also provided girly support for Claire in the midst of all those mens!

For Claire, the most significant of the mens is, of course, Charlie (Tom/Ron is, from jump, merely the occasion for Claire's journey of self-discovery, equally bland whether you understand him as victim, villain, or straight-up psycho). Claire does wonder, at one point, why Charlie has never left the base area, a location where he has plainly been ill-served (when Claire meets him, he's making a meager living defending local hookers when they're picked up servicing the men on the base), but really, it's clear that Charlie is in town to wait for her arrival, this case, and his redemption.

It's in this relationship that the film's clearly well intentioned race politics falls apart. On one level, Charlie is one of those "colorblind" characters you've heard tell about (he might have been played by any actor around Freeman's age, as he makes no clear reference to the racism that might have affected his career). But on another, this very construction (of "colorblind" casting or writing) is troubling. It's one thing for the movie to overlook the racism of its several scenarios, for instance, the "historical" events in El Salvador, in which the massacre is represented as the act of a deviant individual, covered up by the institution, but not as a systemic and ongoing problem.

And it's a similar thing for the movie to overlook its own dicey representations of Latinos, either the snidely Hernandez and the intimidating El Salvadoran fellow who appears out of nowhere, to threaten and then offer crucial clues to the slow-on-the-uptake Claire. But it's another thing to cut Charlie out of these troubling moments and their resolutions. Really, you'd like to imagine that, having survived the Marines and the legal system, he's wilier than that.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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