Double Jeopardy (United States, 1999)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Towards the end of Double Jeopardy, one individual threatens another, "I'm gonna have you arrested for stupidity." I wish someone had made a similar pronouncement to director Bruce Beresford and writers David Weisberg & Douglas Cook. In most cases, I'm willing to give a film a fair amount of latitude (especially a mystery/thriller, which, by its nature, is likely to have a convoluted plot) provided that three criteria are met. First, the characters must be interesting. Secondly, the story must maintain a minimum level of credibility. Finally, and most importantly, the screenplay must not insult my intelligence. Double Jeopardy manages to fail in two of these three areas. The only point it meets is the "interesting character" one, and that's in large part because Ashley Judd is a good enough actress to be able to bring something to an on-screen personality that isn't in the script.

The premise, despite being somewhat implausible, is nevertheless intriguing. A woman, Libby Parsons (Ashley Judd), is arrested for killing her husband, Nick (Bruce Greenwood). The two leave together for a weekend trip on a sailboat, but, when the coast guard answers a distress call, all they find is a bloodsoaked Libby. Her trial does not go well, and she is convicted. However, while in jail, she learns that her husband is not dead. With a new identity, he has taken her son and money and left Washington State. Once she is out on parole, she begins searching for Nick with her parole officer, Lehman (played by Tommy Lee Jones in full Fugitive mode), hot on her heels. And, when she finds him, she has one big thing going for her. Because the Fifth Amendment does not allow a person to be tried more than once for one crime (the situation is called "double jeopardy"), and she has already served time for Nick's murder, she can execute him with impunity.

If made for a thoughtful audience, Double Jeopardy could have been a powerful motion picture, examining issues like justice and revenge. How would any of us react if we suddenly discovered that we had the power of life and death over the person who had wronged us the most grievously? Unfortunately, this movie is too focused on action, melodrama, and plot twists to allow for more than a moment's intelligence to worm its way into the script. Double Jeopardy piles implausibility upon implausibility until its dubious foundation begins to crack under the pressure. Willing suspension of disbelief gets thrown out the window. And, not only is the storyline impossible to swallow, but the characters all act like they have been victims of some sort of degenerative brain disease. Critics love to mock horror movie scream queens for their stupidity, but some of those girls are geniuses compared to the men and women populating this movie. No one here acts in ways that make sense; they do dumb things just so they can be placed in danger. And even an inattentive audience will be at least a couple of steps ahead of them.

Ashley Judd almost makes Libby credible. In fact, the actress is so good that, against all odds, we like the character even though she only uses about 1% of her brain cells. It's not difficult to understand why Judd would accept this role: Libby is a strong female character who doesn't need a man to save her. It's less clear why Tommy Lee Jones agreed to appear here. He isn't given much to do, nor is his character well developed. Maybe the writers expected us to mentally graft the personality of Sam Gerard (from The Fugitive and U.S. Marshals) onto Lehman. The third main actor, Bruce Greenwood, is also much better than the material. Greenwood will not be familiar to most American viewers, but he is a well-respected Canadian character actor who has had key parts in Atom Egoyan's Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter (he played a grieving father in both films).

Filmmaker Bruce Beresford has an uneven resume. For every Driving Miss Daisy or Paradise Road, there's a Her Alibi or A Good Man in Africa. It's almost as if Beresford accepts a job based on a fascinating premise without considering whether the script does it justice. There are some nice things about Double Jeopardy. In addition to Judd, the cinematography (by Peter James) is impressive, whether it's of gorgeous mountain vistas or rainy New Orleans streets. But this doesn't amount to a good reason to see a mostly bad movie. By sticking to the familiar, lobotomized thriller formula, Double Jeopardy too often fails to arrest anyone's attention.

Double Jeopardy (United States, 1999)

Director: Bruce Beresford
Cast: Ashley Judd, Tommy Lee Jones, Bruce Greenwood, Annabeth Gish
Screenplay: David Weisberg & Douglas Cook
Cinematography: Peter James
Music: Normand Corbeil
U.S. Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Run Time: 1:44
U.S. Release Date: 1999-09-24
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Content, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1