Suspect

suspectLike many movie packages, Suspect appears stuffed with possibilities; it’s got two attractive stars, a strong supporting cast, the aura of Hitchcock­ian thrills and romance, and a director who’s been known to make some nondescript but entertaining films (Peter Yates, of Eyewitness and Breaking Away). Unfortunately, it also has a script that, in terms of invention, merely rounds up the usual suspects.

The idea is that a public defender (Cher) takes on the defense of a deaf-mute transient (Liam Neeson) in a murder trial. Nobody particularly cares about the case, since victim and suspect are equally insignificant. The judge (John Mahoney) wants to get the trial over quickly, so he can accept a higher appointment; the prosecutor (Joe Mantegna) wants to fatten his political resume.

But there’s more here than meets the eye, as if you couldn’t guess. The first person to catch errant clues is a juror (Dennis Quaid), a high-powered Washington lobbyist who’s been roped into jury duty. He starts seeing discrepancies in the evidence. But he can’t pull a Perry Mason and thunder from the jury box, so he contacts the defender on the sly, and together they compile some tantalizing evidence.

The fact that such attorney­-juror interaction is highly unethical adds an extra layer of suspense, which Yates exploits in the movie’s best scene, a wordless sequence when the judge enters a law library where Cher and Quaid are doing research – if he sees them together, it’ll blow everything sky-high.

Elsewhere, Yates relies on standard tricks. Dark hallways, hands entering frames with heavy music cues, all designed to jolt you out of your seat. Some of it actually works.

But not much of it feels that good, at least to these jaded senses. The ethical touch-and-go seems borrowed from the success of Jagged Edge, and the remarks about the inadequacies of the justice system are tired. Cher the defender talks about her spiritual dissatisfaction, but that’s about all the evidence we have of it; otherwise, the actress is on her own in filling out the character (which she does rather well, in fact).

Quaid’s lobbyist is even more underconceived; he remains a blank. We don’t really know the connection between his amoral political activities and his jury­-bound bloodhound routine.

The movie even fails to bring these two together for prurient interest, I’m sorry to say. (Obviously, the prurient interests need a better lobbyist.) Somehow it’s OK to tamper with a juror, but no slow dancing ’til the trial is over.

I enjoyed watching John Mahoney and Philip Bosco as two cagey politicos. Joe Mantegna, currently on view in House of Games, is disappointing as the prosecutor. He’s occupying the same position George C. Scott had in Anatomy of a Murder – a hotshot young stage actor who comes in for a juicy featured part (prosecutors are reliably nasty roles). But Mantegna plays it low-key, when the role calls for him to show off a little.

Suspect has large patches that are enjoyable. But its fundamental weakness is that it doesn’t quite play fair; if you’re going to mount a whodunit, play by the rules.

First published in the Herald, October 22, 1987

Another one from that legal-thriller craze of the era. The movie did well, despite its reluctance to put Cher and Dennis Quaid in the clinches (I guess; or do they get together eventually?). The long-careered Eric Roth wrote the script.

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