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THE LAW WINS

While most of the nation's lawyers are defending O.J. Simpson, a precious dozen or so have slipped away to assist the Clintons in their various tribulations. Apparently all the others drive cabs or run around in the pages of John Grisham's potboilers saying pithy things.

At least there's finally a movie worthy of this last choice of specialty. The Client is a surprisingly taut, dramatic and entertaining piece of work, full of terrific performances and fine, atmospheric details. Why is this surprising? Well, for one thing, Grisham's instant bestsellers--popular as they are--always have shown more legal than literary merit, and the other movies that have been made from them are shlock. If you can recall a single convincing moment from The Firm or--worse yet--The Pelican Brief, you're doing better than most people.

The Client is an entirely different case--a thriller that makes constant sense as it keeps us on the edge of our seats. Like The Firm, it is set in steamy Memphis, combining a boy who's witnessed a suicide, a mob vendetta and a formidable pair of dueling attorneys in a riveting blend of Southern Gothic and legal maneuvering. Grisham reportedly got $2.25 million for the movie rights, and for once he was worth it.

The great saving grace here is that neither the writers nor the director had to kowtow to the bland matinee idol Tom Cruise or the talking mannequin Julia Roberts. So-called star power is still the strongest force in American moviemaking, and it's likely what hobbled the earlier Grisham adaptations. And this time the original was relatively free of the fantastic improbabilities Grisham forced into his earlier books. But the best things about The Client are more elusive--a depth of character and a sureness of tone you don't usually find in the freeze-dried emotions and lumbering formulas of Grisham Country.

Credit screenwriters Akiva Goldsman and Robert Getchell with knocking some of the corners off the lawyer/novelist's square dialogue and for streamlining his clunky plot. Grisham's book may have sold two million copies in its first month, but it's these guys who know what's cinematic and what sounds real. Credit director Joel Schumacher with tightening and intensifying the whole business so artfully that there's hardly room to breathe. After some false starts (like Dying Young and Flatliners), Schumacher's career got a boost with the surreal urban fable Falling Down, and the new film confirms his talents.

Most of all, credit a talented cast for turning The Client into high drama. This took some Hollywood tweaking, and for once it worked. Reggie Love, the 52-year-old gray-haired woman lawyer who represented the boy in Grisham's book, has been transformed into a redhead with a taste for Led Zeppelin and a couple of nagging demons in her back pages. Which is to say she's become Susan Sarandon, an actress interested in acting. Those who still feel there are no good roles for women these days should have a look: Reggie's uncertainties, her submerged maternal instincts and her bright Southern fire come together here in what could be another Oscar nomination for Sarandon.

Reggie's legal antagonist--the vain, ambitious U.S. attorney from New Orleans, "Reverend" Ray Foltrigg--has been expanded and subtly softened for Tommy Lee Jones, who was, after all, the guy who tracked down Richard Kimble. Jones invests the part with just the right oily charm. Part viper, part peacock, Foltrigg is not above manipulating a child behind closed doors for his own gain, but he also knows when he's been outflanked. Jones gives a fully detailed portrait of devious intent.

There's more. In a world of movie brats personified by the annoying and mannered Macaulay Culkin, there's still room for a natural kid with talent. Schumacher found unknown eleven-year-old Brad Renfro in Knoxville, Tennessee, and he's the perfect choice as Mark Sway, the poor, defiant, precocious kid who witnesses the suicide of a mob lawyer and then finds himself squeezed between a cold-blooded hit man (who else but Anthony LaPaglia?) who wants to shut him up and the self-serving Foltrigg, who wants to pry out of him what he might have learned from the dead lawyer about a murdered U.S. senator. Renfro had never acted, but his performance here is extraordinary, a heady mix of fright, cunning and old hurts--without any hint of Hollywood gloss.

The minor roles are exquisite, too--Mary-Louise Parker as little Mark's beleaguered trailer-park mother, veteran J.T. Walsh as the Memphis prosecutor Foltrigg wraps around his finger, Ossie Davis as a no-nonsense judge.

Grisham purists will note the useful addition of a stirring chase through a hospital morgue, but not much else has been tampered with in the journey from page to screen--as long as you ignore the film's major upgrade of dramatic intensity, the full fleshing-out of some rather insubstantial characters, and a heightened sense of danger so palpable you can feel it on your skin.

For my money, The Client is the most exciting commercial movie of the summer by a long shot, a textbook demonstration of what Hollywood does best when all the highly polished pieces fall into place.

 
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