A strong start, a smart twist ending, and one of the greatest veteran actors working today butting heads with one of the brightest upcoming thespians of his generation. Seems a slam dunk right? Well, only partly.
Hopkins plays wealthy Los Angeles engineer Ted Crawford who learns that his wife (Embeth Davidtz) is cheating on him. So like any jilted husband he takes revenge - in this case shooting her. It seems to be an easy case for rising assistant D.A. Willy Beachum (Ryan Gosling), a cocky young man who thinks he can wrap this all up quite easily and move on up into the high-paying world of corporate law.
It's not that simple though - Crawford's self-confidence bothers Willy. Serving as his own defense attorney, Crawford manages to throw so many curve balls in the increasingly frustrated and desperate Willy's way that soon everything he holds dear is in jeopardy.
At times "Fracture" bristles with greatness - Hopkins sinister smiles, occasionally amusing courtroom antics, some snappy dialogue, and effective atmosphere. The slowly unwinding tension in its old school setup and manicured claustrophobic visual look evokes both noir and those smart sexual thrillers of yesteryear, whilst the setup and denoument are- though not revelatory - are nonetheless clever, simple and quite believable.
Where it falters is the pacing and script. There's only enough material here for a "Law and Order" TV episode, not a near two-hour film - causing much of the middle hour to interminably drag. Director Gregory Hoblit turned a similarly thin legal premise into "Primal Fear", one of the best films of 1996, by expanding upon it with rich complex characters, career-making performances from greats like Edward Norton and Laura Linney, and a gripping credible story with multiple twists unfolding at a good pace. "Fracture" has no such side benefits.
The steady beats of the central story are deliberately plotted and the odd touches of wit surprisingly coy, but they never build any sense of suspense or throw in any smart twists, opting for some rather ridiculous moral quandries that serve only to drag out the action. When in the courtroom (surprisingly minimal for a legal thriller), the twists may be ridiculous, but they are entertaining - on the outside however they're far less credible and compelling.
The conventional antics never get daring, often covering material (eg. the adulterous cop) the audience has already assimilated and moved on from, whilst other subplots such as the bureaucracy of the DA's office to the ice queen love interest (Rosamund Pike) feel like bad recycled elements from better films - noticably detracting from the more effective central story.
That's not helped by the fact that all but the two leads are drawn in blank simple colors, leaving great actors like David Strathairn and Rosamund Pike to simply phone it in. Pike in particular comes off quite badly in this, and noticable trimming to some of her scenes seems to have taken place. Billy Burke fares a little better as an adulterous cop key to the action.
Hopkins however is having a ball of time. A quieter more shifty variation of his Lecter routine from "Silence of the Lambs" (a film which gets quite a few not-so-subtle references throughout), Hopkins manages to rivet when on-screen, even when the act becomes more overt and his speeches drip with sadistic superior sarcasm.
Gosling, the paradoxically baby-faced, rake thin, well-muscled, and huge-headed Canadian, gives interesting meat to a surprisingly thin and conventional role. Yet the film never establishes his credentials in early scenes, this supposedly masterful lawyer seems hopelessly distracted right from the get go, and his increasingly desperate antics followed by the eventual realisation and assertive attempts to fight back don't feel earned.
It's a smart film made with strong talent, but none of them seem to be operating at their best - and it shows. It plays it safe, delivering a satisfying and shrewd thriller which older audiences will welcome as good comfort food. It's just those involved don't break new ground, let alone expand on the richer potentials that this lays the foundations for, but never builds upon.