Friday, February 04, 2011

Burt With a Badge: Physical Evidence (1989)

Physical Evidence is a unique film in that I have been accused more than once of making it up. “No, seriously. Michael Crichton directed Burt Reynolds in a courtroom thriller. Honest.” High time, then, that I saw it.

We’re back in Boston, where this blogathon began. A sad sack stops his car in the middle of the Tobin Bridge, hangs a noose and a sign reading “Happy Now?” around his neck, and climbs down to kill himself – only to find a corpse already in the spot he’s chosen. It’s a grabber of an opening that harks back to Crichton’s early days writing paperbacks as John Lange. But as executed the scene doesn’t live up to its potential. That’s the problem with Physical Evidence as a whole. It knows the moves but can’t stick the landing.

What follows owes way too much to Jagged Edge, which as the ads trumpeted was from the same producer. The stiff was the enemy of Burt’s Joe Paris, a cop on suspension for beating up his own partner. Theresa Russell plays the rich woman public defender who angrily lobbies for the case and then butts heads with her client while trying to clear his name.

The legal maneuverings are reasonably accurate and served straight up. Crichton doesn’t give Burt’s Deliverance co-star Ned Beatty much scenery to chew as the prosecuting attorney, but the actor makes a nice box lunch of what there is. There’s no plot gigantism here, no conspiracy that goes to the all the way to the top, just human-scaled emotions. But the movie is too low-key and choppy to gain any traction. And at times it’s simply sloppy, like when a Boston police car rolls past a box selling copies of the New York Post.

Burt may be first billed but he’s playing a supporting role here. It’s Russell’s movie. Her monotone doesn’t help in the courtroom scenes, and she’s actively sabotaged by a wardrobe department that put her in a series of severe suits. I initially thought of them as mannish but decided the term was too harsh. Then Jenny’s frat boy swain (Ted McGinley in the Ted McGinley role) unleashes that very word in their final big blow-out. More baffling is Russell’s favorite aeronautical pin that makes it look like a biplane is bursting out of her chest en route to the Empire State Building to wing King Kong. Naturally, Joe and Jenny fall for each other, prompting this immortal exchange as they near their first clinch.

Jenny: No way, Jose.
Joe: I ain’t Jose.

In Mexico, Joe, you would be.

Thus do we come to the close of the Burt With a Badge blogathon. No, I’m not going to watch 1993’s Cop and a Half. I’m doing this for free, people. Would that I could end on a better note, but Burt would do OK. He’d go back to television, first on B.L. Stryker (Florida-based shamus living on a boat – you see? He could have been Travis McGee!) then taking home an Emmy for Evening Shade. A few years later he’d get his first Academy Award nomination for Boogie Nights. Because Burt, like the Dude, abides.