Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle True Crime

By Russell Smith

MARCH 22, 1999: 

D: Clint Eastwood; with Eastwood, Isaiah Washington, James Woods, Denis Leary, Lisa Gay Hamilton. (R, 127 min.)

Like so many of the flawed gems in the Clint Eastwood oeuvre, True Crime manages to underscore both the virtues that have earned him recognition as a major director and the limitations that consign him, for the most part, to a position just a cut or two below the first rank. As one of the last of the old-school auteurs, Eastwood has a clear, consistent idea of what he wants to say with his films, so there's not much danger of mistaking his work for anyone else's. True Crime, which strikes me as his best work since 1992's Unforgiven, contains many of Eastwood's trademarks, including the definitive one: a morally ambiguous, emotionally scarred protagonist getting one last shot at redemption after a spectacular fall from grace. In this case, the rehabbing hero is Steve Everett, a onetime star investigative reporter trying to revive a career he's trashed with booze, satyriasis, and inordinate faith in his gut instincts. When one of Steve's colleagues dies in a car accident, his editor (Leary) assigns him to finish the story the recently deceased was working on: an interview with a San Quentin inmate (Washington) who's about to be executed for murdering a pregnant grocery cashier. Almost immediately, though, Everett starts smelling rats in the wall of evidence, and his original story angle (born-again thug finds peace and salvation through Jesus) becomes a crusade to free a man he believes to be innocent. From this point, the familiar race-against-the-executioner's-clock plot is set in motion, with all the usual accouterments of skeptical bosses, uncooperative lawmen, and the inevitable key witness who has mysteriously dropped out of sight. Eastwood, seldom one for narrative innovation or high-style shotmaking, shows little interest in subverting our expectations. Instead, he places absolute trust in his genius for moving us with sharp, forceful, linear storytelling and his ability to coax memorable, full-bodied performances from his idiosyncratic supporting cast. Woods' turn as an executive editor with a wary reverence for Steve's mercurial talent includes some of his best work ever. Leary is almost as good playing against type as a cuckolded yuppie city editor. True Crime suffers, like many of Eastwood's films, from the director's obsession with symmetry -- an abhorrence of loose ends and unresolved conflicts that give the conclusion a somewhat mechanistic feel. One also wishes, on behalf of millions of female viewers who could probably do without any further exposure to 68-year-old Clint's Inca-mummy physique, that hunk emeritus Eastwood would officially close the book on the shirtless-scene phase of his career. But even conceding the weaknesses that often seem to flow from the very same instincts that lend his work its clarity and power, True Crime still seems likely to hold up as one of the year's better crime dramas. When Eastwood is at the top of his form -- as he is for much of this film -- there's no more spellbinding storyteller in American cinema.
3.5 stars

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