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MOVIE REVIEW : 'Evidence' Guilty of Retrying Old Plots

January 27, 1989|MICHAEL WILMINGTON

Something seems to have gone dead inside "Physical Evidence" (citywide). It's a cold, bright, thick movie without any life or passion. Yet passion, both moral and romantic, is its subject. It's a thriller about a lawyer (Theresa Russell) defending a brutal ex-cop accused of murder (Burt Reynolds), and the story plays up their class and cultural differences, the corrupt society around them, the byzantine quirks and crannies of jurisprudence.

How did it go so flat and empty? Director Michael Crichton and writer Bill Phillips seem to be frantically recycling bits and scraps of every recent upscale thriller-romance, pushing all the buttons in a doomed attempt to make something, anything, light up the scoreboard.

The parts seem interchangeable. There's a sexy lawyer battling battling public prejudices in a tangled legal system. (Isn't that "The Accused"?) There are backstage finaglings at a sensational trial ("The Verdict," "Suspect"); three-cornered romance with undercurrents of murder and obsession ("Fatal Attraction"); a disgraced cop trying to clear his name ("Witness"). Phillips and Crichton are like a pair who walk into a casino and try to win by playing every game in the house. Everything in "Physical Evidence" has an antecedent; there's scarcely a moment that seems real or honest.

The most obvious influence of all is "Jagged Edge," the 1985 hit by "Evidence" producer Martin Ransohoff--whose son Steve is credited here with part of the original story.

Original?

The movie begins with a preposterous set-piece: A hapless would-be suicide tries to hang himself from a bridge over Boston Harbor. When he discovers a corpse in the girders, the two get tangled up in the rope and fall, dangling over water. The scene is staged with such a bouncy rhythm, it's obviously intended to tickle and shock. But why would a suicide victim pick a huge, well-travelled bridge to hang himself from? Isn't that a bit like like walking out on a skyscraper ledge and slitting your wrists?

It's best not to ask questions like that about "Physical Evidence"; you'll never stop. Halfway through the trial, lawyer Jenny Hudson calls a witness, a gangster's wife (Kay Lenz), who's going to give Reynolds' Joe Paris an alibi, by admitting they were together, alone--until the nasty prosecutor (Ned Beatty) brings her murderous gangster husband into the courtroom, intimidating her into silence. Did this woman believe her spouse wouldn't find out about her confession unless he actually heard it in the courtroom?

So it goes. Michael Crichton is a writer-director whose movies, even at their best, seem a little disengaged and remote. They revolve around gimmickry, scientific extrapolation, clockwork robberies, robots--and they're usually weak on character. Here, working with a story that's an illogical patchwork of other movies, his style seems even more remote; empty of physical beauty, though John Alonzo shot it; devoid of humanity, despite a fine cast. Only when the movie focuses on its plethora of sleazy villains, a Crichton specialty, does it come briefly alive. The sleaze sweepstakes is won, hands down, by Angelo Rizacos as a cotton-mouthed contract killer and snitch.

But, even though everything in "Physical Evidence" seems to collapse, star Burt Reynolds doesn't. Reynolds has had such bad luck with his projects recently, that critics sometimes react as if his movies were high-wire acts. Will he make it? Will he fall?

But the emptiness of "Physical Evidence" doesn't muffle Reynolds. He exudes dark, glowering authority and plays against his own charm. It's a nice performance--along with Rizacos' Tony Sklar, Larry Reynolds as the trial judge and Laurie Paton as a lewd receptionist. It's not enough.

Reynolds' Paris can't save "Physical Evidence" because the movie is built around Russell's Jenny: a role that doesn't have the range of her Nicolas Roeg films. It leaves her stuck in legal absurdity, erupting in soft-minded yuppie spats with her jealous screen roommate Ted McGinley.

"Physical Evidence" is a thriller that doesn't thrill, a romance that doesn't ignite, a mystery that doesn't mystify and barely makes sense. Like the corpse and the suicide in the movie's opening scene, this movie leaves us dangling over dark water, supposedly in Death's embrace but feeling silly.

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