An Innocent Man

innocentmanWhen the action heats up in the maximum-security prison of An Innocent Man, one con surveys the scene and says to another, “Tension in the Big House. Just like in the movies.”

That’s got it about right. Despite the fact that An Innocent Man was written by a first-time screenwriter (Larry Brothers) who has spent some time behind bars, it trots out the basic, familiar elements of a good prison melodrama. It’s solidly in a line from the wronged-justice movies of the 1930s (such as I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang) to Stallone’s outing from a couple of months ago, Lock-Up. Not much changes.

As these things go, An Innocent Man is hard-nosed and effective. Tom Selleck plays a normal guy, with a good life and a happy wife (Laila Robbins), whose existence is messed up when two crooked cops mistakenly bust into his house and shoot him. In order to cover their error, they plant drugs in his home and, when he recovers, frame him for dealing.

Selleck goes up the river, where he learns that his ideas about fair play don’t exactly hold sway. He falls in with a wily con (F. Murray Abraham, the Oscar winner from Amadeus), who’s been in prison “since Jesus was a baby,” and learns the rules of the jungle. The hardest lesson is: Kill or be killed.

There as some clever lines along the way and Abraham gets a lot of the good ones. The occasional moment suggest writer Brothers’ knowledge of prison experience; when Selleck is paroled and picked up by his wife, he murmurs, “Riding in a car,” as though reminding himself of the phenomenon. That’s a telling line.

Peter Yates, whose work has ranged from Bullitt to Breaking Away, is a veteran director who knows what to do with this sort of thing. He keeps it moving, in his colorless fashion, with little wasted motion. The movie’s spikiest moments are not with Selleck, who presents a bland protagonist, but with the two sleazy cops who framed him. They are played by David Rasche and Richard Young, and they are as hissable as villains come these days. Rasche, who achieved some sort of glory on TV’s “Sledge Hammer” series, has a particularly evil romp.

The film is too clockwork; the latter half involves Selleck’s revenge, and it’s predictable. It works, of course, because the bad cops are doing everything but kicking puppies around, and we can’t wait to see justice served. We’re not disappointed.

First published in the Herald, October 6, 1989

Here’s another film, and not actually a bad one, that seems almost entirely without a profile. Does anyone remember this movie fondly, or at all?

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