In the opening scene of Gregory (Primal Fear) Hoblit's new suspense thriller, we are introduced to a brilliant and wealthy aeronautical engineer played by Anthony Hopkins. He is so eminent in his field that the NTSB has asked him to locate the structural flaw in a recently crashed airliner after its own scientists fail to do so. He's also such a cool, self-confident customer that he feels no need to wait for tests to validate his findings, simply handing the agents a single telling X-ray before speeding off in his Ferrari.
His name is Ted Crawford, and the makers of Fracture would have been well advised to seek the services of someone with his particular gift before they wrapped production. The film itself proves the victim of structural flaws and imperfections of plot that prevent it from being the far superior entertainment it might have been.
The first half of the movie is great fun. Hopkins' hair may have turned white, but his eyes have lost none of their devilish sparkle. As it happens, Crawford was speeding off in that sports car to spy on his wife (Embeth Davidtz), who has developed a regular habit of cheating on him at a local hotel with a member of L.A.'s finest. First he watches the two frolic in the pool. Then he lets himself into their room and pokes around. Later he surprises her at home, asks for a hug and shoots her in the head.
Police arrive shortly thereafter, the boyfriend among them. Only then does he realize that the critically injured woman on the floor is his lover, since they've never exchanged their real names. The husband informs the officer in no uncertain terms that he shot her, but he keeps his knowledge of the affair to himself.
Meanwhile, at the DA's office, a young hotshot played by Ryan Gosling is days away from starting with a top private law firm. His boss decides to dump the case on his desk as a little farewell gift. Even with one foot out the door, Gosling's Willy Beachum figures it won't tie up much of his time. The matter seems open and shut. Authorities have the gun Hopkins was holding, shells from the crime scene and a signed confession.
Imagine Gosling's surprise, then, when Hopkins arranges to represent himself and gets all charges dropped without breaking a sweat. I won't spoil the fun by going into the details of how he does this. Suffice it to say he's a move or five ahead of everybody else involved. Beachum's not accustomed to getting his courtroom clock cleaned by an old guy with no legal training. He finds himself jeopardizing his cushy new job to hang around and see justice served.
Which, for about an hour, makes for first-rate film fun. Nobody does the brainy maniac better than Sir Anthony, of course. As he demonstrated last year in Half Nelson, Gosling can be terrifically compelling when he portrays a character grappling with inner conflict. The two have chemistry to spare, and the script by Daniel Pyne and Glenn Gers features some of the best, in places some of the funniest, dialogue I've heard this year.
Then things start to fall apart. The picture loses nearly all its momentum in the second act. Implausibilities mount: No explanation is given, for example, for the cuckolded genius' acquisition of the key to his wife's hotel room.
Crucial components of the character's master plan can be seen in retrospect to rely on coincidence and chance. Of all the cops in the LAPD, how could he have known his wife's lover would be among the handful sent to his house? Hopkins explains to Gosling that he banked on the latter's being too preoccupied with the prospect of his new job to prepare properly for the trial - but he can't explain how he could possibly have known the young man would be assigned by the DA's office in the first place.
One of the most damning examples of this problem involves the climactic legal twist. Again, I don't want to give away too much. Let's just say that, for an intellectual giant, Hopkins is unbelievably clueless when it comes to how double jeopardy works.
On balance, Fracture is front-loaded with enough good stuff to make it worth seeing. It's just too bad that what might have been a legal thriller of distinction proves in the end to be pretty much equal parts trial and error.