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Gregory Hoblit's Fracture is a dry martini of a movie, served in interesting stemware. It makes the most of its stars' assets: Anthony Hopkins's deadliness, Ryan Gosling's sharpness, and Rosamund Pike's brightness. The two supporting actors, Embeth Davidtz and Billy Burke, bring an appropriately haunted air to the proceedings  The plot is both profoundly conventional and pocked with strange twists. The Los Angeles in the background is not quite the same old Los Angeles; for one thing, it makes use of Disney Hall, inside and out. Fracture manages to be familiar but never tired.

Willy Beachum (Mr Gosling) is a crackerjack prosecutor who is about to make the jump to a pricey big law firm. He is new to the ways of wealth but not at all ashamed of himself. (I do hope that Mr Gosling's way with a fork is nicer.) At the last minute, he is summoned to handle the arraignment of a murderer, Ted Crawford (Mr Hopkins), whose crime we have just witnessed. Crawford has been caught carrying the weapon, and he has made an unsolicited confession. He insists on representing himself. His mind already walking out of the District Attorney's office - he shows up for the arraignment in the tux that he's got to wear to a law-firm do - Beachum is lulled into not taking the case seriously, and when it comes to trial a few days later, he watches in horror as testimony and evidence evaporate.

We know that Crawford, an ace aeronautical engineer, has set something up, but we don't know what. Beachum doesn't know what we know, but he suspects it, and his determination to prove a case against Crawford is more than just a drive to atone for his careless mistake. He wants to vindicate the victim, Jennifer Crawford (Ms Davidtz), who is in a coma. And he wants to do the right thing. At one point, he is sorely tempted by the chance to do the right thing by doing the wrong thing, but he resists. A bit arrogant and careerist at the start of the movie, he emerges as a fine lawyer at the end. The search for positive evidence that Crawford shot his wife proves to be elusive, however, and the engineer is eventually acquitted. This raises interesting double-jeopardy problems that the story solves almost too elegantly. At the nadir of Beachum's fortunes, we figure out Crawford's set-up at the same moment that he does, and coincidence binds us to his cause all the more tightly.

Rosamund Pike plays Nikki Gardner, a senior associate at the firm that has just hired Beachum. It is clear from her first encounter with Willy that we will have at least one bedroom scene, but I'm happy to say that it's a morning-after moment. Fracture shrewdly distances itself from happy romance, and senior lawyer is not exercising good judgment when she asks Willy to call her at home. Ms Pike's Nikki is both yearning and wary, and the actress makes the most of what is essentially a sidelight. David Strathairn is terrific as the stern but generous District Attorney, and it's a testament to the intensity with which the central story unfolds that Mr Strathairn's fans have no real reason to regret the fact that the movie doesn't give him more to do. Fiona Shaw is excellent as the judge presiding over the first Crawford fiasco; she's as stunned by the collapse of the People's case as anybody. Finally, Mr Burke is simply perfect as the hostage negotiator with whom Jennifer Crawford was having an affair. There is not a scene in which his character does not convey a wrenching pathos.

Fracture just manages to be a thriller. Grievous bodily harm is usually menacing in the background. But the pleasures of the film are cerebral. It takes Beachum a long time to accept that incriminating evidence will not be readily forthcoming, and we share his agonized awareness that a rabbit is not going to pop out of the hat. When the "eureka" moment comes, the puzzle's pieces fall into place at a gratifying tempo. Mr Hopkins is smugly hateful right up until the last minute, when he has the decency to appear somewhat anxious about being back in a courtroom. The engineer of a perfect crime is undone by impatience bred of superiority. It's a great downfall. (May 2007)

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