Hopkins makes this thriller work

The husband, Anthony Hopkins, confesses to the murder of the wife, Embeth Davidtz, but then the fun begins in this taut legal thriller.

I don't know whether Anthony Hopkins is the best actor alive. I do know that I can't name another thespian as hypnotic as this fireplug with Romeo's velvet voice. The sight of him about to checkmate his adversary is the gift that keeps on giving.

Fracture, a stylish thriller so highly strung it zings, gives us Hopkins, an actor at the top of his game, in material that's only middling.

Hopkins has some competition here. Gregory Hoblit's courtroom thriller gives Hopkins a worthy match in Ryan Gosling, an actor every crumb as cagy, unpredictable and fiendishly gifted. With their fakes, feints and other nonverbal one-upmanship these two shrewd actors provide a master class in head games. If Hopkins is the acknowledged Bobby Fischer of acting, Gosling, speaking in a down-home twang, proves himself the Boris Spassky.

Hopkins plays Ted Crawford, an engineer who specializes in fracture mechanics, useful for detecting the weak spots in aircraft. It is a skill Ted deploys on people's weak spots as well.

In the film's opening sequence, after stalking his faithless wife (Embeth Davidtz), Ted shoots her in cold blood and confesses. Prosecutor Willy Beachum (Gosling), about to jump from the district attorney's office to a cushy post at an L.A. corporate firm, thinks it's an open-and-shut case. Little does he know it will keep springing open like a jack-in-the-box.

The engineer, a bitter man in his twilight years, derives particular pleasure in psyching out a young prosecutor with brilliant career and romantic promises on the horizon. Lovely Rosamund Pike, best known in this country as Keira Knightley's older sister in Pride and Prejudice, is his love interest, corporate lawyer Nikki Gardner, who has the cool exterior and hot blood of Grace Kelly.

The magnetism between Willy and Nikki is not as important as the negative current between Willy and Crawford. For the older man, it isn't enough to get away with murder; he needs to murder Willy's prospects, making the movie a generational war of wits.

The screenplay from Daniel Pyne and Glenn Gers suggests that the antagonism between the two men is not just generational but philosophical. In a film that contrasts people with money, such as Crawford, with people with ideals, such as Willy, will the public prosecutor abandon his post for the private sector?

The film frames the philosophical divide visually. Will Willy leave the fluorescent-lit warren of offices in Los Angeles' City Hall for slick corporate suites flooded with natural light? The scruffy prosecutor whose suits don't quite fit is tempted by the corporate perks of good seats at the gleaming Disney Concert Hall and neon-colored drinks at the trendy Standard Hotel.

Hoblit made his reputation with Primal Fear, a similarly themed courtroom cat-and-mouse affair with a cocky lawyer and an even cockier defendant. Lightning doesn't strike again here, but you hear a distant thunder.


Fracture *** (out of four stars)

Produced by Charles Weinstock, directed by Gregory Hoblit, written by Daniel Pyne and Glenn Gers (from a story by Daniel Pyne), distributed by New Line Cinema.

Running time: 1 hour, 38 mins.

Ted Crawford. . . Anthony Hopkins

Willy Beachum. . . Ryan Gosling

Joe Lobruto. . . David Strathairn

Nikki Gardner. . . Rosamund Pike

Parent's guide: R (violence, profanity)

Playing at: area theaters

Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http://go.philly.com/flickgrrl/