Cop turned author Joseph Wambbaugh’s screen adaptation of his novel, itself based on actual court documents, examines the aftermath of a policeman’s murder in 1963 Los Angeles. When a pair of plainclothes officers pull over a suspicious car they suddenly find themselves at the mercy of unpredictable sociopath Greg Powell (a convincing James Woods) and his neurotic sidekick Jimmy Smith, a petty thief fresh out of prison over whom Powell maintains a ragged psychological control. The two men force the cops to drive them to an isolated farm with the promise that they’ll be set free to wander back to the city, but things don’t go exactly as planned leaving one policeman dead while his partner manages to escape. The murder itself is tragic enough, but what follows is a cynical and angry indictment of a judicial system so full of loopholes that, in the words of one naïve public prosecutor, “...lawyers can deem fantasy is real and lies are the truth.” Powell, quick-witted, shrewd, and wholly narcissistic, decides to defend himself using every legal trick he can glean from the prison library while Smith, forever cowering in Powell’s shadow, finds that manipulating the system isn’t so hard after all. As the case drags on year after year the surviving officer, wracked with guilt and subjected to professional scrutiny, suffers the effects of post traumatic stress disorder eventually losing his job, his sense of dignity and, in what has to be the film’s most powerful performance, his very will to live. Wambaugh’s passions are evident throughout as he casts a jaundiced eye on a legal system more concerned with motions and appeals than justice. To his credit he does manage to steer clear of the usual stereotypes; his lawyers are just as conflicted, his criminals carry an intensity which belies their brutal appearance, and the veteran policemen who hover in the background display a subtle cynicism which hints at deeper battle scars. Furthermore, he cleverly derails our expectations of a neat and tidy Hollywood ending, giving us instead a bittersweet series of resolutions which may not completely satisfy yet ring far more authentic. Unfortunately he tries too hard to get his points across resulting in some awkward sermonizing and a few needlessly theatrical moments. The subject matter is gripping enough and, in the hands of a very talented cast, the film’s momentum could have carried itself without all the dramatic prodding.

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