Never judge a film by its cast list (unless Charlie Sheen is in it). Because, while screen legend Clint Eastwood directs, produces and stars in True Crime, and is backed by solid support that includes Isaiah Washington, James Woods and Denis Leary, this wannabe crime thriller is little more than a recycled cop movie that creaks with cliché. Believe me - for every memorable moment, there are two of slack-jawed, forehead-slapping incredulity.
The story (based on a novel by Andrew Klavan) hopes to combine the well-worn idea of a wrongly accused prisoner with one man's fight for justice, tackling racial prejudice, bureaucracy and the hero's own shortcomings along the way.
Behind the camera, Eastwood wrings the best out of everyone involved, slowing the race-against-time rent-a-plot to a jazzy, almost Marlowesque dawdle. On the performance front, Washington (Out Of Sight, Clockers) plays the condemned black killer with a striking power and dignity, unintentionally highlighting the weaker chunks of the movie; while comedian Leary carves out another memorable bit-part as an angry newspaper editor.
But Woods deserves a special nod of recognition. Slipping gleefully into the fast-talking, larger-than-life boots of the newspaper boss, the snappy, punchy scenes he rattles off with Eastwood's wrinkly writer provide some much-needed light relief.
Yet even Woods can't breathe life into a movie that's already lying in Hollywood hospital - blue-lipped, blotchy and starting to smell - and there's nothing left to do but pull the white sheet over it and take Warner Bros into the relatives' room to break the bad news.
What script-fiddlers Larry Gross, Paul Brickman and Stephen Schiff have tried to do is mould the story into another Beverly Hills Cop. Thus Eastwood's bad-boy journo is effectively an OAP Eddie Murphy, a jibing, lawless crusader who rails against the system (even when he's taken off the case), a character diluted further by added cop clichés such as alcoholism, a broken marriage and a shady past.
And if Eastwood is Murphy, then Woods' newspaper boss is the angry police captain, chewing his charge out while retaining a reluctant respect for his talents. For these reasons (plus the unswallowable fact that Eastwood seems to be irresistibly attractive to women a third his age), you never truly click with the hero who, flitting between family and job, stumbles towards the nick-of-time conclusion with no real sense of urgency.
When the traditional ending rolls around, True Crime is revealed as charmless, disjointed and unsatisfying. Eastwood's unsympathetic lead feels like an empty throwback to the actor's cocky heyday, a time when he could get away with anything - even having an orang-utan for a co-star. Decades on, his womanising, quip-happy character rings unrealistically hollow, shackled to a half-baked storyline that rarely threatens to make the best of his, or anybody else's, talents.
Eastwood's directorial skills are never stretched and the lack of an original plot lets True Crime down. Washington and Woods provide high points, but the sense of déjà vû is overwhelming. You'll guess the outcome after about five minutes.