The Thrill Is Gone

Here is what I look for in a thriller: a plot that turns on logic, not one that defies it. Characters whose behavior arises from believable motivations and whose actions do not feel arbitrary. Good guys who are not invulnerable, and bad guys who shoot accurately. An opening that grabs me, and an ending that ties up more loose ends than it creates.

Does that seem like a lot to ask? For whatever reason, movies that fit most of those criteria are in short supply. Conversely, movies with unbelievable plots based purely on coincidence, cliched heroes and villains, limp chase scenes, and endings riddled with more holes than the inordinate number of corpses littering the screen seem to be all the rage.

I never have read a John Grisham novel, yet I have had the misfortune of witnessing three of his works translated to the big screen. Perhaps all three books are gripping page-turners, rife with compelling, sympathetic characters whose internal monologues offer tremendous insight into their complex thought processes. Then again, perhaps they are like his movies: sloppy, half-baked pulp populated with hackneyed characters who do dumb things but get away with it because, after all, they're the good guys.

The Firm, The Pelican Brief, and now The Client -- combined they offer all the originality of an episode of Barnaby Jones or Cannon, only with bigger stars and budgets. Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys were more plausible. At least those adolescent mystery-solvers varied the basic formula from time to time. With Grisham it's always the same old story: An innocent protagonist must run for his or her life after stumbling onto a deadly secret that involves the mob, big business, politics, or some combination thereof. Lawyers and the legal profession figure prominently. The lead character enjoys a run of blind, dumb luck that would make him an overnight millionaire at any craps table in the world.

The Client is putatively the story of a young boy who, thanks to the usual unlikely Grishamesque plot devices, shares a babbling, nearly incoherent mob lawyer's final moments, learns where some much-sought-after corpses are buried, witnesses the consigliere's suicide, and finally must evade both the politically ambitious U.S. attorney who wants to put him on the stand and the Mafia hit men who want to make sure that doesn't happen. Since Grisham could not figure out any way to make the boy a lawyer, he has the kid hire one, and she becomes as much the focus of the story as the youngster.

It's all so predictable. She's feisty and has a checkered past. He's feisty and has a checkered present. He's estranged from a parent. She's estranged from her kids. They argue a lot initially, but eventually they bond and help each other overcome their private demons. The viewer's most difficult intellectual challenge is stifling a yawn.

None of the performances is particularly memorable, nor is any of them a complete flop. Tommy Lee Jones is okay as the camera-friendly U.S. attorney with an eye on the governor's seat. It's essentially a hybrid of his roles from JFK and The Fugitive. He gets in and out of limos a lot and spends most of his time striding purposefully. Brad Renfro is pretty good as the kid -- he fares much better than Elijah Wood does in North -- and Susan Sarandon as the boy's lawyer is, as usual, slightly better than her material warrants. Unfortunately, somebody forgot to tell Anthony LaPaglia, who plays the heavy (nickname: the Blade), that Miami Vice was canceled years ago. He swaggers and slicks back his hair and generally comports himself like a generic, mid-Eighties slimeball. If they'd made the film with smell-o-rama, you'd suffocate in Drakkar Noir every time he appeared.

But that's about all there is to it. The kid accidentally learns something he shouldn't, the hit men and the lawmen give chase, and the spunky underdog with the unrequited maternal instinct joins the fray and saves the day. In other words, typical Grisham. Consider yourself warned.


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