Film: When Harry met cliche

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Clint Eastwood has become a more interesting actor with age - his gnarled features seem to have been hewn from Mount Rushmore itself, and the eyes have a sadness where there was once something cold and implacable. His work in Unforgiven, In the Line of Fire and The Bridges of Madison County has a solidity and grandeur that could almost qualify for a separate classification: Late Clint.

So it's unfortunate that while he is dependable in True Crime, his 21st film as director, he's also miscast. He plays Steve Everett, a crusading newspaperman who once brought down the mayor of New York but then let booze get the better of him. Now he's a philandering veteran on the Oakland Tribune and, though he recently got back on the wagon, we first sight him in a bar, chatting with a cub reporter (Mary McCormack).

"If you're such hot shit", she teases, "what are you doing in bumfuck California?" Language, language, please, you expect Clint to say in a fatherly fashion, but no. He just chuckles, and next thing you know he's trying to put his tongue in her mouth. She's 23! Hey, I wanted to shout, you're Clint - not Clinton.

It's not simply that Eastwood is too old to play the womaniser; looking back on his screen career, he has been many things, but sensual is not one of them. He's too self-contained, too driven, to be truly susceptible to women. Some of the liveliest scenes in this new film concern his cuckolding of an uptight city editor (Denis Leary) - "Stop fucking Bob's wife, he doesn't like it," his boss tells him - but it's still a struggle to square Eastwood's granitic integrity with this randy old goat. (Everett is himself married with a young kid.) We stick with it none the less.

The plot is kicked into life when Everett is handed a routine human interest story on the last hours of Frank Beechum, a convicted killer on Death Row. Now Everett may be a bit of a joke around the office, he may be a lush and a lech, but he's still got an instinct for a story, and something tells him that Beechum (Isaiah Washington) did not kill that pregnant woman in the grocery store six years ago. "If your nose for a story has gone, you're gone too," he says grimly, and once the Tribune editor (James Woods) cuts him some slack Everett is off like a bloodhound to sniff out the truth.

For a while this tale of an old man clawing his way to redemption is pretty enjoyable. Eastwood directs at a steady 30mph, not afraid to take in minor characters and ponder what other film-makers would throw out as too digressive. There's some lovely office banter, for instance, not vital in itself yet enough to make me feel grateful that Eastwood bothered. Everett's scenes with James Woods are easily the best things in the movie. Woods' cynical motormouth ("People wanna read about sex organs and blood") contrasts with Eastwood's battered decency, and one imagines the screenwriters - Larry Gross, Paul Brickman and Stephen Schiff - had a lot of fun working up their joshing exchanges. It always does the heart good to see James Woods on a cast list, and his bug-eyed astringency keeps the movie awake in its early stages.

Once the film switches its focus to the condemned man, however, the whiff of piety becomes stifling. We're clearly meant to be moved by the scenes between Beechum and his wife and daughter, but I baulked at the manipulation behind them; one look at Washington's nobly pained features is enough to tell you he's innocent. Unlike Sean Penn in Dead Man Walking, we're never challenged to make a moral judgement of our own about him; all the film wants us to feel his helplessness, and the injustice of "the system". Again, Eastwood at least takes the time to do some character shading: Bernard Hill is nicely ambiguous as the prison warden, while the great Michael McKean (David St Hubbins from This is Spinal Tap) plays a meddlesome chaplain .

Yet what to say of this movie's last half hour? In The Player, Robert Altman devised a blockbuster parody called Habeas Corpus ("Produce the corpse!") whose ending had Bruce Willis arriving in the nick of time to save Julia Roberts from the gas chamber. Eastwood evidently didn't see it. As his reporter pieces together the case for Beechum's innocence I kept thinking: he can't serve up that old race-against-the-clock schtick, can he? Unbelievably, he can - he does. As the theatre of execution is prepared for the midnight show, Everett is still riffling through evidence gathered by his late colleague; and - get this - he finds a notebook in which that colleague has written the words "something fishy here". For crying out loud. I kept pinching myself to make sure I hadn't died and gone to some celestial museum of the movie cliche.

It's a shame. Eastwood is not generally given to sloppy work; his film- making has been an antidote, if anything, to the assembly-line heroics peddled by Hollywood. So why renege on that now? And at some point he's going to have to accept that he's an old man - even Woody Allen has realised he can't play the Lothario any longer. True Crime isn't a disgrace, but it is faintly ridiculous, and that's something Clint Eastwood should never be.

The rest of the week's new films are reviewed on page 10