The truest--and, easily, funniest--thing about True Crime is the Less Is More acting lesson James Woods gives on how to kick ass from the limited vantage point of a cameo spot. As the abrasively cynical editor-in-chief of the Oakland Tribune, Woods sees what his grizzled reporter (director-star Clint Eastwood) is getting at a mile away, picking the word up on his radar the way dogs do with dog whistles. The word, of course--dear to the hearts of aficionados of newshound-turned-detective movies everywhere--is 'hunch.'

It seems Eastwood has a hunch--a recently formed one, having just inherited the assignment on execution eve, that the dead man walking (Isaiah Washington) he is supposed to interview for a day-after human-interest piece is (dare we say the word?) innocent of killing a pregnant convenience-store clerk six years earlier. Ignoring this assignment given to him by the city editor he is cuckolding (Denis Leary), Eastwood scans the dusty court records, and his Newsman's Nose for Truth starts acting up, and, in the few dwindling hours left for the condemned man, he sets out to flush out the real culprit.

No fewer than three screenwriters drew the black bean of adapting Andrew Klavan's novel--Larry Gross, Paul Brickman and Stephen Schiff--and you can sense all three of them breaking out into sweats whenever the story starts careening helplessly toward Clichƒville. Editor Woods is one of their helpful, humorous ways out. "Great," they have him say after Eastwood has aired his theory, 'should we hold the front page, or wait for two unnamed sources, or what?' Given the options, kidding it along is the only way to go.

But such contrivances do accumulate--and coagulate! Eastwood inherits this assignment from his drinking companion the night before--a babe colleague of 23 (exactly a third of Eastman's actual age); when she turns him down, she is killed in a car wreck on her rainy way home, possibly for her rashness. It is another blonde (Laila Robins), nominally the wife of his city editor, who helps him make it through the night. Oh, and did I forget to mention, he's married--hardly happily to Diane Venora--and they have an adorable little daughter for him to neglect? (The latter--lest you think he's too old to be a Lothario--is played by Eastman's own daughter, Francesca Fisher-Eastwood, and her mother, Frances Fisher, gets to snarl out a nice bit as the prosecuting attorney of the six-year-old case.)

It should be obvious by now that True Crime is not so much a nail-biting whodunit as it is a picture puzzle of a self-destructive type in overdrive, weaving from one misstep to another to, eventually and accidentally, the right answer. The character is like the one Nick Nolte played in Affliction, a guy who takes hearsay as hard evidence and acts on it, winding up tragically short of his mark; here, Eastwood's hunch leads him to the truth. Ladling on the clichƒs, it comes to him in an alcoholic haze, prompting him to make a mad, bleary-eyed dash to San Quentin to halt the execution. Will he make it, or don't you know?

--Harry Haun