One way or another, Ashley Judd has parlayed her rather minor talent into a rather major career. She isn't a natural-born star, doesn't have the beauty of Julia Roberts or the affability of Sandra Bullock. And as an actress, she lets her technique show; you can almost see her thinking her way through a role. But in movies like Double Jeopardy and Kiss the Girls, Judd has been attracting an audience that appreciates the intelligence and strength she projects on the screen. Perhaps only Jodie Foster seems so level-headed, so fiercely in control. When Judd takes a stab at romantic comedy, as she did in Someone Like You, there's blood on the floor; some part of her refuses to surrender to love. But when she tackles a thriller, as she does once again in High Crimes, there's an undeniable pleasure in watching a woman handle a role usually assigned to a man. If nothing else, Judd knows how to take care of herself.
In High Crimes, she's Claire Kubik, a high-powered lawyer who lives in San Francisco and appears to have everything a girl could want, not least a husband who seems to have stepped right off the cover of this month's GQ (Jim Caviezel). Then, in a scene that packs quite a punch, her husband is ambushed by a squad of FBI agents who haul him off to a military base where he's to be tried for the murder of nine Salvadoran peasants back in 1988. Claire didn't even know her husband had been in the military, let alone special ops. And thus begins another the-man-I-married-isn't-the-man-I-married movie, not unlike Double Jeopardy. The difference is that this time Judd's character decides to defend her husband rather than murder him. Convinced that her man's innocent, she applies her considerable legal skills to what is euphemistically referred to as the military-justice system.
"Military justice is to justice as military music is to music," says Morgan Freeman's Charlie Grimes, a washed-up military attorney now in his second year of sobriety. Their names a mere "h" away from being anagrams, Charlie and Claire are the real love story in High Crimes. Each brings out the best in the other, and I wish I could say the same for Freeman and Judd. Freeman, whom Pauline Kael once proposed as America's greatest actor, turns in what has become his standard performance ' very relaxed, very sly, never less than watchable. But the movie doesn't have a lot of time for characterization. It's too busy stirring the plot, which nevertheless thickens, finally congealing into clumps of implausibility. Before that, the movie's chief pleasure is watching Claire pull rank on every military type she comes in contact with, from private to general. A Few Good Men? That's what Claire eats for breakfast.