Remember the spectacular ending of Habeas Corpus (the film within Robert Altman's The Player)? Julia Roberts is in the gas chamber. Bruce Willis arrives at the last minute, smashes the glass and carries her off into the sunset. "What took you so long?," she asks. "Traffic was a bitch," he replies. The End. All right, so it's a piss-take, but Eastwood has evidently never seen that movie.
True Crime, his 41st starring role and 21st film as a director, also concerns an innocent prisoner on Death Row. Julia Roberts is replaced by Isaiah Washington as Frank Beechum, a black man in the wrong place (a convenience store) at the wrong time (during a fatal hold-up).
Six incarcerated years later, he is due a lethal injection at one minute past midnight. Cue: Clint as ageing Lothario and recovering alcoholic Steve Everett, one of those movie journalists who doesn't seem to do anything around the office but carries a legendary reputation for being "hard-nosed".
His boss at the Oakland Tribune (James Woods) is no less of a cliche: the cold-hearted, loud-mouthed, seen-it-all editor-in-chief who's stuck his neck out for the maverick reporter one time too many. When Clint becomes convinced of Beechum's innocence, Woods gives him one last chance - allowing him just 12 hours to come up with some hard evidence, save an innocent life and get the scoop.
We cannot blame the hackneyed story on Clint - it's based on a novel by Andrew Klavan - nor the clanging dialogue ("When my nose tells me somethin' stinks, I gotta have faith in it"), though as producer and all-powerful star, he could surely have ordered up something better. But the direction - all his own work - is this disappointing, unconvincing, boring film's weak link.
The decision to eschew the genre's de rigueur fast edits and MTV flashiness was a bold and courageous one: this is certainly the slowest thriller you'll see all year, its pace nobly dictated by the director's aching, 69-year-old joints. But while the wrinkled superstar's advancing years have been a feature of his largely-excellent 90s work - Absolute Power (ageing burglar), Unforgiven (ageing pig farmer), In The Line Of Fire (ageing bodyguard) - here, Clint's old bones make his Casanovan conquests farcical (a distasteful running gag concerns Everett screwing the wife of the paper's city editor Denis Leary).
To offset the sub-screwball comedy of the Tribune office with the potentially heartbreaking Death Row scenes (carried with depth and dignity by Washington) was another bad judgement call. And the race card is played way too late, when Clint is accused of bigotry by the mother of his new suspect (also black); such tokenism renders the eventual outcome frankly dangerous. Though Woods and Leary provide able comic support, Clint, though charming, is woefully miscast (even Woody Allen now gets younger actors to play him), and does not possess the Bruce Willis-like irony required to carry off such a wheelbarrowload of cliches.
At the end of a great decade, True Crime is a vanity picture that sees Clint Eastwood turn into Robert Redford - another 70s hero become a man with no shame.