Grade: D

It was less than a decade ago that Ashley Judd gave a powerful, heartfelt performance in Victor Nunez’s perceptive “Ruby in Paradise” (1993), one of the best American independent films of its day. (It also may have had a positive influence on some who participated in it: the chief male character was played by Todd Field, who last year co-wrote and directed “In the Bedroom,” another masterful small picture.) Judd, then known primarily for her television work, etched a remarkable portrait of a young woman struggling to make a new life for herself against great odds; there was a directness, a genuineness and a warmth to her acting that was extraordinarily refreshing, and it left one awaiting her later work with eager anticipation. She seemed, potentially, the next great American star.

Unfortunately, since then she’s mostly gone the route of slick Hollywood pap. Though she made the little-seen “Normal Life” (1996) for John McNaughton and “The Locusts” (1977) for John Patrick Kelley, she moved more and more into the mainstream with supporting roles in “Heat” and “A Time to Kill,” a process that led to Gary Fleder’s “Kiss the Girls” (1997). That picture first teamed her with Morgan Freeman, but though expertly made it was merely one of the many mediocre serial killer movies that followed in the wake of “The Silence of the Lambs” and “Seven.” And it led directly to her becoming an action heroine in Bruce Beresford’s “Double Jeopardy” (1999), an empty exercise in non-suspense which was little more than a distaff version of “The Fugitive.” Now she’s essentially returned to that example–after a detour to sappy romantic comedy with last year’s generic “Someone Like You,” a failed attempt to do the Meg Ryan-Julia Roberts bit–with “High Crimes,” which rejoins her with Freeman. The result, unhappily, is even weaker than “Kiss the Girls” was. It’s actually no better than the cheap-thrill, lady-in-distress hooey that’s the mainstay of the telemovies one encounters not only on the networks but cable outlets like USA and Lifetime, too.

The script, adapted from a book by Joseph Finder, is about Claire Kubik (Judd), a high-powered attorney whose happy marriage to contracter Tom (Jim Caviezel) is shattered when her spouse is arrested by the FBI and slated for trial in a military court on charges of being an AWOL Marine responsible for a massacre in El Salvador more than a decade earlier. Tom admits having fled the accusation and taken a new identity, but he pleads innocence of the greater crime, saying that he was framed by his commanders. When Claire meets her husband’s green counsel Lt. Chris Embry (Adam Scott) and comes to understand how the deck is stacked against him, she decides to defend Tom herself (despite the damage it poses to her own career), enlisting as co-counsel a former JAG attorney named Grimes (Freeman), a recovering alcoholic and generally curmudgeonly fellow. What follows is an increasingly ludicrous series of red herrings, threatening situations, tense courtroom standoffs, pointless action scenes and big revelations involving conspiracies, corruption, cover-ups and avenging angels, with Claire swinging back and forth between faith in Tom’s innocence and doubts about his honesty.

You might say that the narrative is a cross between Richard Marquand’s “The Jagged Edge” (1985), in which Glenn Close debated the guilt of her client Jeff Bridges while falling for him, and William Friedkin’s “Rules of Engagement” (2000), in which Samuel L. Jackson was defended against charges of causing a Middle Eastern embassy massacre by over-the-hill military lawyer Tommy Lee Jones. Both of those pictures had substantial weaknesses–especially Friedkin’s plodding opus–but “Crimes” is worse than either of them. The plot holes are legion– even after the credits have rolled you’ll be hard pressed to figure out who might have been behind some of the dastardly doings that befall poor Claire, and why–and some of the plot turns are so silly that they’re literally laughable. Claire persuades an FBI man to provide her with secret information with ridiculous ease, for instance, and a major general is cowed by her with equally absurd dispatch. Grimes, meanwhile, falls on and off the wagon so effortlessly than one would be hard pressed to imagine that organizations like AA were necessary. Purple lines of dialogue pop up with awful frequency, as do stock characters and narrative cliches. (Using Claire and Tom’s sitcomish passion to have a baby as a shorthand for the intensity of their relationship is a cheap bit, and then throwing in a curve regarding it is luridly soap-operatic.) And, to be quite honest, using a My Lai-style slaughter in Latin America as the nub of a smarmy melodrama reeks of the worst possible taste in the first place.

Given all this, it’s hardly surprising that the cast fail to energize things. This isn’t Judd’s worst performance–she made “Eye of the Beholder,” remember–but it comes close. It’s truly sad to see her playing scenes in which she has to shake in terror, take a beating and get trussed up. Freeman appears to be on autopilot throughout–his “cute” drunk scenes are embarrassing, and at the close he has to engage in an eye-bulging conversation with Judd that’s below the level of bad farce. Caviezel is stuck in a hopeless role in which he mostly has to mope about and get all teary before exploding emotionally; but one has to sympathize with the fact that the part required him to endure a regulation Marine haircut, clearly a sacrifice for art’s sake. Amanda Peet shows up as Claire’s irritatingly lascivious younger sister, coming across as a failed version of Erin Brockovich, while Scott successfully conveys the callowness of Lt. Embry. (Whether that’s good acting or just the expression of his own personality is hard to say.) Bruce Davison shows up in a brief turn as a general, but doesn’t do much but look uncomfortable. Technically the picture is professional enough (though at a full two hours it could have used a bit of trimming, as well as a better music score than that provided by Graeme Revell), but its lumpish, prefabricated character is a disappointment coming from Carl Franklin, whose first two films (“One False Move” and “Devil in a Blue Dress”) showed real style. (The third, “One True Thing,” moved into melodrama territory, but even it was a superior example of its genre.) Let’s hope this is a temporary aberration.

As a historical curiosity, it will be interesting to see how “High Crimes,” with its rather dismissive attitude toward the military justice system, will fare among audiences bursting with today’s patriotic fervor, especially when one considers that even more powerful, and potentially arbitrary, tribunals are currently being fashioned to try terrorist suspects. But even if viewers fail to consider that point, they’ll probably not find much in the picture to excite their interest. “High Crimes” might not constitute a felonious assault on their intelligence (and their pocketbooks), but it’s certainly at best a cinematic misdemeanor. One can only hope that talents like Ashley Judd and Morgan Freeman will choose their projects more wisely in the future.