Los Angeles prosecuting attorney Willy Beachum (Ryan Gosling) is moving up in the world. Young, driven and unscrupulous, he's achieved a 97% conviction rate by trading cases he knows can't be won with his colleagues and he's just landed himself a job at a top private law firm by stabbing a fellow lawyer in the back.
His boss, the city district attorney (David Strathairn) is disappointed in him but for Beachum, who grew up dirt poor, this is his ticket to everything he's ever wanted, and that includes the gorgeous blonde who's about to become his boss (Rosamund Pike). Beachum's bags are already packed. One more case for the DA's office and he's out the door.
Unfortunately for him, that case turns out to be the trial of wealthy British expat Ted Crawford (Anthony Hopkins) for the attempted murder of his beautiful trophy wife (Embeth Davidtz), who's now in a coma with a bullet in her skull. It looks like an easy conviction: Crawford was arrested standing over the body with the murder weapon in his hand and he made a full, spontaneous confession. And the eccentric old duffer insists on representing himself at his trial!
Of course, Crawford isn't the fool he wants everyone to think he is. He has a diabolically clever plan to get away with his wife's murder and the only man who can stop him, Beachum, is too distracted by his impending career change to see what the old man is up to until it's too late.
An enthralling battle of wits between a cocky young hotshot and a malevolent genius, Fracture is definitely one of the smarter Hollywood entertainments released this year. Then again, the 20th anniversary re-issue of Dirty Dancing is one of the smarter Hollywood entertainments released this year. Maybe it's a sign of just how much movies have dumbed down that a simple, well-crafted legal thriller like this looks like it's made for MENSA members. It doesn't seem so long ago that the likes of Jagged Edge and A Few Good Men were considered as commercial as could be.
But I'm griping about films in general, not this one in particular. Fracture may not be one of the great courtroom movies but it is a good one, intelligently and amusingly scripted by Daniel Pyne and Glenn Gers and coolly, stylishly directed by Gregory Hoblit. He also made Primal Fear, another solid film about a lawyer and a clever killer.
The lion's share of the credit must go to the two leads. Anthony Hopkins and Ryan Gosling are both a pleasure to watch and their scenes together positively crackle. You might be forgiven for suspecting Hopkins of repeating himself, playing another brilliant monster like Hannibal Lecter, but that's not what he does. Hopkins makes Crawford totally distinct from Lecter and scary in a different, more believable way - Crawford is a clever, spoiled child who's high on his own IQ and never grew up or learned self-restraint. This is some of his most mesmerising work.
Ryan Gosling can't hold the screen like Hopkins but then Beachum isn't supposed to be a match for the wily old coot. Gosling, whose Oscar-nominated turn in Half Nelson can also be seen in UK cinemas this week, does deliver a very good performance. He makes Beachum a smug little prick initially and lets him slowly grow more and more sympathetic as he comes to realise what he's up against and what the stakes are.
Fracture isn't without its flaws. The pacing's a little too leisurely in places - my attention wandered once or twice - and the ending isn't as satisfying as it ought to be. We're asked to believe that someone who should know the law inside out is unaware of a fact that's common knowledge to anyone who watches legal dramas on TV. This is simply not worthy of a film that's otherwise so smart.
That said, for the most part Fracture is respectable, grown-up entertainment. If you enjoy good writing and acting and you fancy a break from the juvenile fluff dominating cinemas at the moment, it's well worth a look.