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When worlds collide Ryan Gosling is a rising L.A. prosecutor whose slam-dunk case crumbles when he takes on a devious criminal played by Anthony Hopkins

His name is Crawford. His much-younger, beautiful wife is having an affair with a cop and he knows it. She doesn't know that he knows, though.

It's the crack in what might seem an otherwise perfect life. He's rich, brilliant, powerful and owns his own aircraft company. He also zips through Los Angeles streets in the coolest sports car I've seen in a movie in a long while.

He is, needless to say, testy with his wife when she returns home from her long afternoon delight at a local hotel (some of which he spied on with a mysteriously malevolent expression on his face).

"You think you're so much smarter than me," she says. "It must make you feel very powerful."

"No" he says. "I'm helpless really . . . Knowledge is pain. I'm used to that."

That's when he shoots her in the head, leaving her alive but brain dead for the rest of the movie (not the best news for those of us who are fans of the actress, Embeth Davidtz).

That's only the beginning, though, of "Fracture" -- which is not about violence at all but is rather an old-fashioned suspense thriller pitting a brilliant criminal against a self-adoring young prosecutor.

It's hotshot vs. hotshot, really. The only difference is style and language. And that, quite rightly, is the traditional movie pleasure the movie gives you, too. It pits brilliant older actor Anthony Hopkins, a master at the age of 65, against 26-year old Ryan Gosling, many people's nomination for the best twenty-something actor extant.

That's the game plan for "Fracture" and it's a good one. It's directed by TV director Gregory Hoblit ("Hill Street Blues," "LA Law," "NYPD Blue"), who used a similar game plan to introduce movie audiences to an astonishing and then-young Edward Norton in "Primal Fear."

It's a riveting and suspenseful actor's show -- visually sleek but in the grand old style.

If you're the sort of plot literalist whom Alfred Hitchcock used to deride as "the plausibles," you'll find a few holes in the plot. Why on earth, for instance, did the cop never tell anyone that he was having a thing with the victim? But this movie is tense, smart and satisfying. Unlike last week's "Perfect Stranger," it passes a very basic movie test -- it's way better than garden variety thriller TV, which these days is pretty good.

At this stage, no one has to be introduced to Ryan Gosling. He was deservedly nominated for an Oscar last year for "Half Nelson," after all. He's a superb young actor in what is, now, the neo-Brando cum James Dean style. In other words, he's a funky behavioral naturalist with iffy posture and his own rhythm for delivering lines.

Even less do we need to be introduced to Hopkins, who is without question America's favorite villain as Hannibal Lecter. He's a lot of other things as an actor, but in this movie he and Gosling counterbalance each other perfectly.

Gosling plays a loosey-goosey young prosecutorial hotshot. He smirks all the time and looks out at the world as if he has it by the short hairs. And until he comes up against wife-shooter Crawford, he does.

His conviction rate is the best in the D.A.'s office. In fact, he's got a foot out the door to go work for a very rich, prestigious L.A. firm (where his future superior Rosamund Pike doesn't mind taking him home with her at night.)

He's just got to take care of this one piddling last case, a slam-dunk for sure, he tells the D.A. (played by the redoubtable David Strathairn, another indication that when it comes to acting firepower, this movie doesn't mess around.) And then he's gone.

Except that it's not a slam dunk. Crawford (Hopkins) has seen to that. The case, in fact, turns into what looks like the perfect crime.

And Crawford -- the sinister old would-be murderer -- is defending himself in court, which means that the movie turns, at best, into a virtuoso actor's pas de deux, sly, smirky post-modernist Gosling mumbling and Hopkins, with his racy Welsh croon, crisp articulation and sinister, grinning charm.

It's great fun to watch, like Michael Jordan in his last all-star game vs. Kobe Bryant in his first. It's all done very quietly, which is part of the menace. There are really only a couple of raised voices in the course of the whole film.

Says Crawford, "if you look closely enough, you find everything has a weak spot where it can break sooner or later." The prosecutor's weak spot, according to him? "You're a winner, Willy."

So it turns into a sharply written exercise in winners and losers that's superbly acted and cleverly directed by Hoblit with a terrific sense of L.A. locations.
That last is more impressive than you might think. L.A. is probably the most photographed city on earth. We know its look and feel as we do our own. It's hard to show us an L.A. that looks even remotely new -- or at least different -- on-screen, and yet Hoblit does here. He's a very talented fellow but then that was obvious back in his "Hill Street Blues" days.

It's unfortunate for the movie that this sharp, smart, cat-and-mouse suspense thriller is coming out in a week when the national climate about weirdos with guns is one of stricken horror.

Even if the movie is not really about that at all but about what has become our national subject -- winners and losers.

And how DO you tell them apart, after all?



>Movie Review

Review: 3 1/2 stars (out of four)
Anthony Hopkins, Ryan Gosling, David Strathairn and Rosamunde Pike in Gregory Hoblit's cat and mouse suspense thriller about a hotshot killer vs. a hotshot prosecutor. Rated R, opening tomorrow in area theaters.

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