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‘Suspect’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 23, 1987

Peter Yates's "Suspect," a Washington courtroom drama, breaks down under cross examination like those cornered witnesses at the end of "Perry Mason."

"All right! I did it! I thought I could make a movie about power plays in Washington! I thought if I stuffed it with a lobbyist, a congresswoman who sleeps with him, sneaky goings-on in the Supreme Court, plus Cher and Dennis Quaid . . ."

Yes, Mr. Yates. But you counted on Eric Roth's derivative scenario -- limp testimony indeed. And where it wasn't limp, you made sure it was cold and uninvolving, didn't you? Throw the book at him, Your Honor . . .

But let's get back to our movie: One power-play day, a Supreme Court justice hands a woman an envelope, signs a couple of legal papers and calmly blows his brains out. That woman is later found drifting under Key Bridge with her throat cut. Carl, a homeless man (also a dead ringer for Rasputin and given to outbursts of violence) is arrested with the dead woman's purse. And public defender Kathleen Riley (Cher) gets the case. These events occur with all the excitement of a motion to set aside a motion; producer Daniel A. Sherkow could have saved money by holding notes up to the lens.

Cher's advances toward Serious Actresshood, via "Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean" and "Mask," are slowed by her paper-thin role as a liberal beauty who must represent the beast. Her client is an innocent (and deaf-mute) man who: a) was really a Vietnam vet discharged for wanting a reason to kill, and b) always wanted to be a carpenter. Society, you see, has no room for the Carls of the world, for these "American nightmares," these faceless, nameless, homeless, etcetera, etcetera.

Quaid plays Eddie Sanger, who's lobbying for a crucial House vote on behalf of a milk association. And in a sequence that has no relationship to the story -- except to peek at Washington while it's power-brokering -- he seduces a congresswoman. After getting roped into jury duty for Cher's case, he decides to help her out with investigations of his own -- a legal violation that could jeopardize her whole defense.

Yates makes some effective use of suspense in the second half. In a library, Quaid must -- without prior warning -- avoid chumming up with Cher under the watchful eye of Judge Matthew Helms (John Mahoney). Later, an unknown assailant chases Cher through a murky basement labyrinth of prison bars, corridors and shadows. But for the most part, this case, which includes a convenient last-minute taped confession and a lifeless Cher-Quaid romance, should have been thrown out of court.

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