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By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 4/18/2007

One of the great pleasures of Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs is the cat-and-mouse dialogue between Anthony Hopkins' brilliant, malignant murderer and Jodie Foster's steely young FBI trainee. As creepy as Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter is, there is a witty gamesmanship in the way he teases Foster's Clarice Starling with morsels of information and ominous observations. What kind of movie would it have been if that background humor had been brought to the foreground?

Hopkins finds out in his new movie, Fracture. He once again plays a smart, cold-blooded murderer: Ted Crawford, who shoots his wife in the face after learning of her affair with a Los Angeles police detective. This time his young opponent is Willy Beachum, the prosecutor on the case. But Ted is not quite the monster Hannibal is, so Willy doesn't feel as intimidated as Clarice. In fact, Ryan Gosling, as Willy, often appears to be enjoying the give and take.

They're very much alike these two. They both rose from poor, rural backgrounds to become successful--Ted as an air-crash investigator and Willy as an assistant district attorney offered a job at L.A.'s most prestigious firm. They're smarter than most everyone around them and aren't humble about it either. So when they sit across from each other at a jailhouse table, trading quips and threats, they resemble two evenly matched tennis players swatting the ball back and forth.

Their dialogue, written by Daniel Pyne and Glenn Gers, crackles with wit, but it's even funnier because the two leads are such wonderful actors. When Ted declares that he's not worried about all the evidence against him, Hopkins gives a cheerful wink that suggests that he has a secret weapon. Gosling cocks an eyebrow and shrugs his shoulders as if he can't possibly be intimidated.

Fracture is not really a murder mystery--we see Ted shoot his wife in the opening minutes, and no one really doubts that he did it. The question is if it can be proved in court. Ted springs his deliciously clever trick on Willy in the courtroom and has most of the obvious evidence tossed out. So the question becomes, Can Willy find some new evidence? Or will he even try? After all, he's eager to close his last case at the DA's office so he can get on with his new career at the corporate firm and his promising romance with the firm's blond beauty.

Director Gregory Hoblit applies the glossy proficiency from his Emmy-winning years at Hill Street Blues and L.A. Law to this combination courtroom drama and police procedural. Fracture never transcends its genre the way Lambs did, but it is far funnier than the typical genre exercise. Hopkins and Gosling never turn their characters into cartoons, but they remind us how much fun a battle of the wits can be.

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