"An Innocent Man" has all the elements to put us through an emotional wringer, but the movie never works up any enthusiasm for them. It's the most relaxed crime movie of the year. Tom Selleck may be one of the reasons; he's at his best when he plays light comedy and turns on the charm, but he seems miscast in this movie where he's fighting for his life inside a vicious prison. There never seems to be anything truly at risk.
The film opens with scenes designed to show Selleck as a happy family man and a dedicated airlines maintenance supervisor. They get the movie off to the wrong start by playing exactly like an airline ad. As Selleck tells one aircraft mechanic that there's no compromise on safety, and diagnoses a tricky twisted cable for another, the music and the editing rhythm make the sequence feel like a TV commercial.
Once Selleck has been established as a plastic, one-dimensional symbol of innocence, the real plot starts. We meet a couple of crooked narcotics cops (David Rasche and Richard Young) who specialize in busting drug dealers, stealing their stash, and selling it back to the drug kingpin in the area. One day they get the wrong address and break down Selleck's door. He comes out of the shower with a hair dryer, they think he has a gun, and they shoot him. Then they realize their mistake and frame him. He refuses to cop a plea, and gets six years in prison.
In prison, he learns the ropes fast. It's kill or be killed. A veteran convict (F. Murray Abraham) tells him that he has three choices: (1) Join the white racist Aryan nation gang; (2) kill the vicious black convict who is picking on him, or (3) be sodomized by the blacks. Selleck would rather live and let live, but it doesn't work that way, and after he sees the gang-rape of another victim, he takes Abraham's advice and stabs the black convict to death. He has learned the movie's fascist lesson, which is that since society cannot be trusted to protect the individual, might makes right. The prison scenes are disquieting to watch, because the movie is too lightweight to accommodate the bloodthirsty race hatred of the prisoners. Racism as the subject of a serious movie is one thing. Racism exploited in an entertainment is another.
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