Dir: Carl Franklin. US. 2002. 112mins.

After their pairing in Kiss The Girls, Ashley Judd and Morgan Freeman again demonstrate their screen chemistry in High Crimes, a middling political thriller that's neither suspenseful nor dramatic. Part marriage melodrama, part military conspiracy, part male-female buddy-buddy flick, the film occasionally assumes an air of sombre pretentiousness, when in fact it's just a routine thriller. Released just a week after David Fincher's far superior Panic Room, this Fox spring release in the US will suffer in its wide theatrical distribution. Ultimately, it is likely to achieve only mid-range box office, below the level of Freeman's previous thrillers, Along Came A Spider and Kiss The Girls (which opened to $16.7m and $13.2m respectively). In the long run, the small screen, home video and other ancillary markets should prove more hospitable. However, non-US prospects are less secure: Kiss The Girls only made 30% of its $86.2m gross overseas.

For a decade, writer Joseph Finder, an expert on the CIA and international politics, has been praised for mixing thrills and political intrigue in such books as The Moscow Club and The Zero Hour. Unfortunately, here High Crimes' dense political plot and complex structure have been simplified by husband and wife team Yuri Zeltser and Cary Bickley for the sake of a "cleaner" script.

Claire Kubik (Judd) seems to be a happy woman, with a thriving career as a high-powered attorney, a beautiful house and a wonderful husband, Tom (Caviezel), with his own business. The couple is planning on having a child when a bungled burglary at their house triggers a chain of events that shatters their stable, idyllic world.

To Claire's shock, Tom is arrested shortly afterwards by FBI agents. Apparently his real name is Ronald Chapman - and, as a covert military operative, he orchestrated a mass murder of civilians in El Salvador. At first, Claire believes that it's a case of mistaken identity, but then Tom admits he was forced to be part of a clandestine operation that led to the slayings. Through flashbacks, director Franklin examines the massacre from various points-of-view in order to increase suspense and baffle the audience - at least for a while.

The scriptwriters waste no time in setting the central premise, which revolves around an wife who decides to defend her husband in a top-secret military court. Needless to say, being a woman and civilian who's unfamiliar with military and political procedures makes Claire an outsider par excellence.

The first reel is persuasive in showing how a newly married and adoring wife gradually realises she does not know her husband. However, the essence of the narrative is more pedestrian that it needs to be, presenting a variation on the band of outsiders theme, who work together to prove Tom's innocence. Aside from Claire, the cliquey trio includes a greenhorn military attorney, Lt Embry (Scott), who's assigned to the case; and a wild card, Charlie Grimes (Freeman), a former military attorney who relishes the opportunity to take on the very hierarchical regime that disgraced him years ago and left him with a big chip on his shoulder.

The ease with which Claire approaches top military officials, such as Brig. General Marks (a cast-against-type Bruce Davison) defies credibility, and there are several sequences that are illogical or too contrived in this context. But the film improves in the last act, offering a twist ending that's emotionally satisfying.

By now, Ashley Judd has lost the innocent, angelic looks that bought her to attention in her breakthrough role, Ruby In Paradise, for the sake of becoming a more visible star in the likes of Double Jeopardy and Kiss The Girls. But unlike Jodie Foster, who elevated Panic Room way above its generic nature, here Judd gives a decent but uninspired performance that is on the same level as the material.

While Freeman doesn't put the picture in the must-see category, he still justifies the price of admission. His nuanced and moving performance as the bruised and solitary Grimes is that of a man who has seen too much in his time, but is neither triumphant nor defeated by the experience. Often better than the text he's given to play with, Freeman adds humour to the calm dignity that has informed all of his past work.

Pro co: Regency Enterprises, New Regency/Manifest Film Company, Monarch Pictures
US dist: Fox
Int'l dist: Fox Int'l
Exec prods: Lisa Henson, Kevin Reidy
Prods: Arnon Milchan, Janet Yang, and Jesse B. Franklin
Scr: Yuri Zeltser and Cary Bickley based on the novel by Joseph Finder
Cinematography: Theo Van De Sande
Prod des: Paul Peters
Ed: Carole Kravetz-Aykanian
Graeme Revell
Main cast: Ashley Judd, Morgan Freeman, Jim Caviezel, Adam Scott, Amanda Peet, Bruce Davison