Beyond its generic, forgettable title, “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” feels like some throwaway 1980s TV movie, with its implausible premise, dizzying twists, cheesy montages and melodramatic score.
Actually, its origins go back even further — it’s a remake of a 1956 thriller, one of the last movies Fritz Lang directed — but in modernizing the story, writer-director Peter Hyams (“End of Days”) merely makes it feel rushed and insignificant. Hyams gets very little right here: not journalism, not romance, not even fundamental things like pacing and suspense, which are so crucial to making this genre work.
He even manages to squander Michael Douglas in a juicy role as a slimy district attorney eyeing the Louisiana governorship. Douglas appears so infrequently, his villainy seems far less menacing than it should be.
Instead, “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” feels like a vehicle for hunky Jesse Metcalfe, who stars as ambitious TV news reporter C.J. Nichols. We know we’re in some kind of time warp when we see the bustling Shreveport newsroom where he works — as part of the station’s special investigative unit, no less.
C.J. suspects prosecutor Mark Hunter has been tampering with DNA evidence to secure convictions because his record is just too perfect, so he sets himself up as the suspect in a prostitute’s murder. His goofball producer and sidekick, Corey (Joel David Moore), documents the process of gathering circumstantial evidence — a mask, a knife — to prove C.J.’s innocence later. Not that we’re giving too much away here, but naturally, his plan doesn’t work out the way he’d hoped.
As if that weren’t ridiculous enough, C.J. also happens to fall for assistant district attorney Ella Crystal (Amber Tamblyn), even as he’s trying to expose her boss. Their relationship — a cursory sequence of gauzily filmed dinners and chaste rolls in the hay — never feels believable, though, so the potential emotional consequences of his actions don’t register.
Nothing about C.J. does, come to think of it. He keeps haranguing his buddy to stick with the story, tries to convince him that it will win them a Pulitzer Prize, but he’s never fleshed-out enough to make his daring scheme seem substantial.
The erratic way “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” is edited doesn’t help his cause, either. Dialogue has no flow, cutaways come from nowhere. Perhaps Hyams was hoping to amplify the energy, create a sense of movement or tension by cutting so frequently. But he also uses this tactic during quiet, intimate moments between C.J. and Ella, which is just distracting.
In his few scenes, Douglas struts and schmoozes, charms and cajoles, working jurors in the courtroom and reporters on the courthouse steps with equal ease. It’s a role he could have played in his sleep, in a movie that works awfully hard to keep you awake.