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GHOSTS OF MISSISSIPPI - * * 1/2 - Alec Baldwin, Whoopi Goldberg, James Woods, Craig T. Nelson; rated PG-13 (violence, profanity); Carmike Plaza 5400 and Carmike 12 Theaters; Cinemark Sandy Movies 9; Cineplex Odeon Holladay Center, Trolley Corners and Trolley North Cinemas.

If nothing else, Rob Reiner's overwrought but sincere "Ghosts of Mississippi" reminds us that Alec Baldwin and Whoopi Goldberg really can act when they put their minds to it. And it's especially evident in this case, as both play stoic central characters in a larger ensemble.

Or perhaps it's just because James Woods delivers such an electrifying performance that Baldwin and Goldberg felt the need to overcome their respective reputations as industry jokes. They might have been concerned that if they didn't pull their weight opposite Woods they'd simply be blown off the screen.

As it is, that doesn't quite happen. But there's little question that Woods' dynamic acting tour de force dominates the proceedings here.

Woods plays Byron De La Beck-with. In Jackson, Miss., on a summer night in 1963, Byron aimed his rifle at NAACP leader Medgar Evers (James Pickens Jr.) and killed him in front of his home, as his wife Myrlie (Goldberg) and their children rushed to his side.

Despite a pile of evidence pointing to him as the killer, however, Byron was set free by two all-white hung juries.

More than 25 years later, a Jackson prosecutor (Baldwin) took on the impossible case of bringing De La Beckwith to justice and managed to get a conviction. The film attempts to detail his efforts.

Director Rob Reiner, whose previous work has brought him some serious kudos ("A Few Good Men," "Misery") as well as brickbats ("North") stumbles here simply because he tries too hard. Pious and detached, the film contains more pressure than emotion, and when the comic-relief characters come on screen (most notably William H. Macy as an investigator), it's like a steam release.

Goldberg sublimates her own inimitable sense of humor to a fault, which is unfortunate since the character of Myrlie Evers would have benefited from a bit of joviality here and there. Similarly, Baldwin's character is too much the flawless hero, whose wife leaves him and her children when he refuses to compromise his sense of duty. A few blemishes could have helped make him more human as well.

But Woods suffers from no such ambivalence. He's got a direct bead on De La Beckwith from the get-go, and allows him to be as evil as he can be, while still turning on the charm and prompting laughter in the courtroom with some well-turned wisecracks. He is self-congratulatory and bemused by it all, a character who is unapologetic and revels in his role as a spokesman for hate. (Woods also ages convincingly, with some excellent old-age makeup for a change.)

The supporting cast is also solid, laced with such familiar faces as Craig T. Nelson, Terry O'Quinn, Virginia Madsen, Wayne Rogers (unbilled) and Bill Cobbs.

While some of the history here may be suspect and the characterizations in general too pat - which is bound to result in a soft emotional response from the audience - you have to give Reiner credit for knowing how to cast his movies. Casting Woods was nothing short of genius.

Too bad the entire film doesn't work as well.

"Ghosts of Mississippi" is rated PG-13 for violence and profanity.