Extortionist Jake Farley is found strangled. All available clues implicate burnt-out cop Joe Paris (Burt Reynolds) who insists he is innocent but cannot provide an alibi. Assigned to the case, ambitious young public defendant Jenny Hudson (Theresa Russell) has her hands full given Joe has enemies in every corner, a past history of violence and continues to behave suspiciously. Meanwhile an unidentified patrol car shadows their every move.
After a run of high-concept sci-fi thrillers Jurassic Park (1993) author Michael Crichton returned to his more grounded roots a la Coma (1978) with Physical Evidence. It proved to be Crichton’s final outing as director although he later supervised re-shoots on the historical epic The Thirteenth Warrior (1999) based on his novel Eaters of the Dead. Originally Physical Evidence was intended to be a sequel to the Joe Eszterhas-scripted thriller Jagged Edge (1985) with stars Glenn Close and Robert Loggia set to reprise their roles. Depending on whom you believe Columbia Pictures’ then-head David Puttnam either wanted to steer the studio away from sequels or simply felt the script was not up to snuff. As a result the project turned into a vehicle for Burt Reynolds and Theresa Russell.
By the late Eighties Burt Reynolds was looking to distance himself from the good ol’ boy persona established in umpteen car chase comedies he made with Hal Needham and embrace more substantial roles. More in line with his post-Deliverance (1972) pre-Smokey and the Bandit (1977) years. 1989 also saw him turn in a very credible performance in Bill Forsyth’s warm comedy-drama Breaking In. Alas, neither film connected with the public and the Nineties saw him segue into television sitcoms and direct-to-video action fare with only sporadic triumphs on the big screen (most notably Boogie Nights (1997)). By comparison Theresa Russell’s career was defined by a refusal to take the easy path. Among the bravest actresses of the Eighties she took big risks with unconventional roles (mostly collaborating with then-husband Nicolas Roeg although Bob Rafelson’s thriller Black Widow (1987) also drew her good notices). Sadly, rather than elevate her standing, the results served to alienate Russell from the mainstream, marginalizing her in much the same way as happened to Burt.
In a very Eighties chalk-and-cheese pairing (he’s a slovenly blue collar cop; she’s the uptight career-driven lawyer), Reynolds and Russell don’t make much sense on paper but spark decent chemistry nonetheless. However while Reynolds shines as the rumpled Joe Paris, around whom the film weaves a fairly potent layer of moral ambiguity, Russell appears ill-at-ease. She grapples awkwardly with vapid dialogue and several of the film’s more ham-fisted moments. It does not help that the script, penned by Bill Phillips (from a story co-devised with Steve Ransohoff), saddles Russell with a contrived and unnecessary subplot dwelling on Jenny’s deteriorating relationship with her yuppie asshole fiancé (sitcom regular Ted McGinley). Arriving at the tail end of the Eighties, Phillips’ script is intriguingly vehement in its efforts to distance itself from the materialistic values of the decade. It makes a point of having Jenny embarrassed about her luxuriously furnished house and that her boyfriend earns a fortune trading junk bonds. Even so the film fails to develop her anxieties beyond a surface level.
Crichton’s methodical direction fails to enliven the pedestrian plot. Nevertheless as a character and clue-by-clue driven mystery Phillips’ script springs a fair few decent surprises. Kay Lenz pops up as the abused wife of a mob boss now entangled with Joe (and in one scene models some racy aerobics attire - ah, the Eighties!) as does Burt’s old river-rafting partner Ned Beatty as the opposing counsel. Overall, perfunctory is the byword for a thriller that, given the talents of those involved, really ought to be more substantial. As things stand Physical Evidence is certainly watchable, but nothing more.