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'The Pledge' uneven, confusing

'The Pledge' uneven, confusing

In this story:

An aging cop

A young cop

A confusing plot

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(CNN) -- Based on a novel of the same name by the late Friedrich Durrenmatt, "The Pledge" stars Jack Nicholson and Robin Wright Penn and is directed by her husband Sean Penn. The film also features outstanding performances by great actors in small cameos including Vanessa Redgrave, Benicio Del Toro, Helen Mirren and Sam Shepard.

It has all the right credentials, so why is it such a muddled mess?

The answers may lie in the murky dual purposes required by Nicholson's character, (but never quite achieved), added to the story's glacial-like pacing. The combination produces the inevitable result -- an unsatisfying "say what?" conclusion.

The film begins and ends with Nicholson's battered face in close up, then pulls back to reveal him mumbling and stumbling around what appears to be an abandoned gas station in the middle of nowhere, while birds in flight are superimposed over this desolate image. It's very artsy-smartsy, but it's also a major hint to run to the concession stand and load up on Coca- Cola, and don't hold the caffeine.

An aging cop

Once the story actually kicks in, we meet Jerry Black (Nicholson), a Nevada homicide detective reluctantly on the verge of retirement. But on the evening of his going-away party, the body of a murdered 8-year-old girl is found on a nearby snowy mountain top. Like an old fire horse hearing a clanging bell, Black can't resist getting involved in just one more case, even if he won't be around to solve it.

The next scene is ludicrous: None of the local highway patrol officers involved in the case has the nerve to tell the girl's parents about her murder. So, of course, the grizzled, big-city detective steps in to take on the job.

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He finds the couple at their nearby turkey farm -- insert cheap joke -- where the grieving mother (Patricia Clarkson) begs Jerry to swear on his soul that he will find the killer. Touched by her grief, and unwilling to let go of the case, Jerry agrees. He'll find the person who killed her little girl.

A young cop

Enter an ambitious young detective, Stan Krolak (Aaron Eckhart), determined to make a name for himself. He massages a dubious confession from Toby Jay Wadenah (Del Toro), a confused, tearful, simple-minded Native American who was seen leaving the scene of the crime. Case closed.

Or is it?

But Black's gut instincts tell him otherwise, and the mystery gives a new direction to his now-aimless life. Is the killer still out there, or is Black just trying to stay in the game?

That's the first dual purpose facing his character, and husband-and-wife screenwriters Jerzy and Mary Olson Kromolowski handle this one deftly -- with an assist from Nicholson's acting abilities. (That can't be said about a more important conflict later on, but that's a digression.)

There are just enough unanswered questions about Toby's confession, and some bits and pieces of evidence, to justify Black's skepticism, but there's still a small chance he's chasing an illusion of his own making.

As he carries on his one-man investigation, Black finds two other unsolved murders in the same area that are eerily similar to the one that haunts him. Refusing to give up, Black buys a small gas station in the middle of the area where all three killings took place. Sooner or later, Black figures, the murderer will tip his hand and the retired detective will get him. Black is a spider, waiting in his web.

The plot thickens when he meets Lori (Wright Penn), a waitress whose little girl, Chrissy (Pauline Roberts) is the same age and coloring as the three other murdered girls. Black befriends the two, and after Lori's abusive ex-husband comes calling, the ex-cop invites them to live with him under his protection.

A confusing plot

Here's where things get dicey. Black's motivation is never clear. He eventually falls in love with both the mother and daughter, but you never fully understand his plans regarding the child. Was he protecting her all along, using her as bait for the killer? Maybe even a little of both? Who knows?

'The Pledge' uneven, confusing

This is vital, since the whole ending is based on that answer, and it's never clear. So the audience is left in the lurch when Nicholson goes into his crazy act in the final scenes.

Nicholson may be regarded as one of the best actors on the planet, but when he goes from somewhat sane (a description of Nicholson in any number of his films) to wacko in a nanosecond, it just does not work.

This is the second time that Nicholson has acted in a Penn-directed film. The two made "The Crossing Guard" (1995), which was also overly baked and heavy-handed film, a movie about a father haunted by his daughter's death.

Wright Penn does a wonderful job, and is nearly unrecognizable in the beginning of the film. And, as mentioned before, there are some great cameo appearances throughout the film. The score by Hans Zimmer, as usual is excellent.

But this world- weary, old-cop-in-search-of-a-killer plot has been done again and again, on the big screen and in made-for-TV movies.

Despite the talent involved in front of and behind the camera, this flick doesn't bring anything new to the party, and the ending winds down like a cheap watch.

"The Pledge" opens nationwide on Friday. Rated R. 124 minutes.

The Pledge

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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