University professor David Gale is on Death Row, awaiting execution for a vicious rape and murder. Ironically, before being jailed he was a tireless campaigner against the death penalty. With four days to go, Gale enlists the help of star journalist Bitsey Bloom to uncover the truth and prove his innocence.
Alan Parker's reknowned ability to attract, and subsequently marshal, serious acting talent is the chief attraction of this death row thriller. Unfortunately, on this occasion, the British director has selected a script by first-time screenwriter Charles Randolph, that is keen (as in eager) where it needs to be keen (intellectually acute).
A third meaning of keen, is to make a lament for the dead, and the politically astute Parker's subject is indeed the plight of the innocent man on Death Row. But, unlike the more effective Dead Man Walking, this is not simply a lament for the condemned, this is an exciting race against time - Parker wants to sell some tickets here.
The Life Of David Gale is therefore part political treatise and part thriller, but where Parker's earlier Mississippi Burning scored on both counts, the necessary balance is often stumbled over here. It does not help matters that in many places outside of America (including the UK) the death penalty is not exactly a touchstone issue. Further confusing the moral arguments are glaring plot holes and a pounding Miami Vice-style rock soundtrack that fits better with the film's flashier aspirations.
Yet the A-listers are indeed there and, on the whole, they serve Parker well. Death Row Kevin Spacey revisits Seven's John Doe, all slow blinks and languorous tones, while flashback Kevin Spacey makes the most of his trademark charisma. Kate Winslet gets the job done and Laura Linney, as always, invests her supporting role with more depth and sensitivity than is in the script. And at bottom, it is the material that doesn't stand up to close scrutiny.
As the movie jolts towards the climax Randolph cannot hide his inexperience, relying on glib twists and devices that, on the one hand, sacrifice credibility, and on the other contradict crucial plot points on which the final revelation relies.
If you can overlook some brainless plot devices, this is entertaining enough. Spacey is on form.