The odd-couple crime-fighting duo seems a cliché. But then along come Ashley Judd and Morgan Freeman — like those requisite surprise witnesses in every hackneyed courtroom drama — to give our worn-out defendant a fresh chance.

The trick, it seems, is to dazzle us, the jury, with fancy character and plot footwork, and to dress the old genre up in new clothes. In Kiss the Girls (1997), Judd played young Dr. Kate McTiernan with the toughness, strength and resourcefulness she’s brought to nearly all of her roles since her breakout film, Ruby in Paradise (1993). She ends up joining forces with this movie’s star, Freeman’s Dr. Alex Cross, a character lustrous with the actor’s hallmark intelligent humanity, to find a psychotic Casanova. Though they avoid Riggs and Murtaugh’s obviousness in the Lethal Weapon series for something subtler, essentially they fit the genre’s requirement of two very different personalities thrown together by the only thing they may have in common: a shared desire to bring the bad guy to justice.

Though High Crimes is in no way a sequel to Kiss the Girls, Judd and Freeman essentially play out a variation of the same theme — and with the same chemistry. Judd is Claire Kubik, a hard-as-nails defense attorney who reserves her soft, gooey center for her loving husband, Tom (James Caviezel, The Count of Monte Cristo). It’s a wonderful life — until a team of armed men in SWAT gear, guns drawn, abruptly ends their Christmas shopping. Tom ends up being charged with nine counts of murder that he allegedly committed during a Marine mission gone wrong more than a decade ago.

Claire may be a great civilian lawyer, but the military court is a different game that even the novice lieutenant assigned to their case doesn’t seem to fully understand. She brings in ex-Marine (and present recovering alcoholic) lawyer Charlie Grimes (Freeman) as her “wild card.”

On the surface, High Crimes is an entertaining thriller with all the required suspense and twists. Its plot evades most of our expectations — until it’s found guilty of a predictable ending. And that’s more of a shame than a crime.

E-mail James Keith La Croix at [email protected].

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