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Dustin Putman

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Double Jeopardy (1999)
2 Stars

Directed by Bruce Beresford
Cast: Ashley Judd, Tommy Lee Jones, Bruce Greenwood, Annabeth Gish, Roma Maffia.
1999 – 106 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for violence, profanity, sex, nudity, and blood).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, September 25, 1999.

Have you ever seen a film that could possibly have been successful, but was basically ruined due to an ad campaign that gave away literally every secret the picture has to offer? It's a common occurrence, but never before has a trailer blatantly spoiled a film the way Paramount's ads for "Double Jeopardy" do. If you are able to disregard this almost-fatal flaw, you will find that the film really is a highly servicable thriller, full of fine performances and blessed with brisk pacing that consistently saves the film from ever becoming tedious. While you watch "Double Jeopardy," you enjoy it, but even if the ad campaign hadn't given away every secret, it still would have been rather predictable, and ultimately can't escape its formulaic plotting.

Libby Parsons (Ashley Judd) has it all; a generous, caring relationship with her husband, Nick (Bruce Greenwood); a cheerful 4-year-old son; a love for sailing; and a beautiful, lakeside home in the northeast. While spending the night together on the boat Nick just bought for Libby, she awakens to discover she, as well as the boat, is covered in blood, and her husband is missing. The sea-rescue squad catches her holding the knife she has just found on the deck, and when Nick's body is never recovered, Libby finds herself facing serious time behind bars, and before long, is sentenced to a 9-year prison term. Heartbroken that she has to be separated from her son, who is thus adopted by her best friend, Angela (Annabeth Gish), Libby decides to make the best of her time there, becoming friends with some of her fellow inmates and working out a lot. Then, to her horror, Angela and her son disappear for a month, but she is able to track them down by a telephone operator, where they are now staying in San Francisco. To make a long story short, Libby overhears her son on the phone exclaim, "Daddy!" and all of a sudden, she realizes that she was intentionally framed for the "murder" by her husband himself. A former lawyer and matter-of-fact cellmate (Roma Maffia) explains to Libby about a process called Double Jeopardy, in which a person cannot be convicted of the same crime twice. So if, say, Libby wanted to actually murder him once she's released, she could, and there's nothing anyone could do about it.

Switch to six years later, Libby is granted a three-year parole, and is sent to live at a community house for recently-released convicts, run by the flawed parole officer Travis Lehman (Tommy Lee Jones), who supposedly was in a car accident years before that killed his wife and daughter. Since then, Travis hasn't been able to lay off the alcohol, but he does catch on rather quickly to Libby's ulterior motives, and attempts to stop her when she escapes from his custody.

You know, I may have given away quite a few of the major plot points, but they were also all discussed in the theatrical trailer. And you know what else? The trailer also had the shameless nerve to unravel even more of the story, right up to the climax in New Orleans, with Libby holding the gun at Nick, only for it to go off. After watching a 2 1/2-minute cliffs notes version of the 106-minute film, one wonders why anyone would even be interested in spending their hard-earned money on something that they already know the outcome of, but judging from the fairly-packed theater last night, it didn't stop any of them.

Beginning with a painfully obvious 15-minute prologue in which the "murder" takes place, I sat back in my seat, expecting to suffer through the remainder of a film that had "Mainstream Hollywood" written all over it. Once Libby is sent to prison, however, "Double Jeopardy" quickly improves, due in large part to Ashley Judd's superb, touching performance, as a woman who, in a moment's time, finds her whole happy existence seriously altered. With an acting career that began with her best-ever work in Victor Nunez's small 1993 masterpiece, "Ruby in Paradise," Judd has followed this up with some disappointing commercial projects (1997's "Kiss the Girls") that have nonetheless helped to buoy her star potential, and has wisely intermixed these with more independent efforts (1997's "The Locusts," 1998's "Simon Birch"). "Double Jeopardy" belongs squarely in the commercial category, but that doesn't keep Judd from creating a believable, strong-willed character that we easily root for.

Tommy Lee Jones, in a role that is nearly a carbon copy of everything he has appeared in in the last six years (save for maybe 1995's "Batman Forever"), manages to pull off a strong performance that is more satisfyingly-written than most of his other recent efforts. While his character, like the film itself, is an utter cliche (the troubled, alcoholic man who finally comes to terms with his past mistakes), Jones sparks it with more life than there might have been had a lesser actor been cast in the part.

It makes you wonder, though. Would I have thought more highly of "Double Jeopardy" if, going into it, I knew nothing about it? There would have definitely been some extra surprises that most likely would have been unpredictable, and I probably would have found the premise more ingenious. Despite this, the film really is needlessly implausible on the basic story level, and the climactic showdown resorts to that reliable struggle scene that ends with a gun going off and killing one of the characters. But which one? I'll give you a hint: there's no way Paramount would have allowed the picture not to have a happy ending in which Libby and her son reunite. With all of the film's virtues and flaws weighed equally, let's just called "Double Jeopardy" a near-recommendation: a well-made thriller, to be sure, but just about as banal as they come.

©1999 by Dustin Putman

Dustin Putman