Film Reviews

A Cliche to Kill

A few bombshells from the movie adaption of John Grisham's A Time to Kill: The U.S. criminal justice system has flaws. Matthew McConaughey walks funny and has crooked teeth. Some lawyers are dishonest. Mississippi has not yet discovered air conditioning. Some cops are racists. Good guys look sexy in khaki. Bad guys wear black suits and suffer impotence. Rednecks drink beer.

Whew! Hope I haven't changed anyone's life with those revelations. A Time to Kill pulses with just such potentially inflammatory material. Think you're tough enough to take on Grisham's latest manipulative, button-pushing potboiler? Test yourself; try to maintain a straight face while uttering aloud, in a faux southern accent thick as Mississippi mud, the dramatic line: "Stump's Day-ehd!"

If you managed to pull it off, you're made of stronger stuff than this reviewer. I found myself laughing aloud at the film's plethora of cartoonish exaggerations and melodramatic courtroom cliches -- the corrupt judge, the politically ambitious district attorney, not one but two key witnesses discredited on the stand by the unearthing of secrets from their pasts, the impassioned summation. At one point the judge, after overruling the prosecutor's legitimate objection to his opponent's leading a witness on an apparent tangent, actually warns the defense attorney, "This better be good!"

Too bad the judge didn't issue the same warning to the filmmakers. A Time to Kill is a movie for people with exactly that -- time to kill. The simplistic plot -- a white attorney defends a black man accused of murdering the two rednecks who raped, beat, and nearly killed his ten-year-old daughter -- offers no surprises. The film threatens to generate real sparks in a handful of scenes between Samuel L. Jackson as Carl Lee Hailey, the vengeful father, and overhyped newcomer Matthew McConaughey as Jake Brigance, the ambitious young Mississippi lawyer. But before flames of genuine emotion can arise, producer Grisham and his firefighting accomplices -- screenwriter Akiva Goldsman and director Joel Schumacher (the writing-directing duo who also collaborated on Batman Forever and Grisham's The Client) -- extinguish them with buckets of hokum and credibility-defying heroics.

McConaughey exhibits flashes of serious talent as dashing young Jake, but comes across as a bit of a lightweight. Brigance not only has to outduel a better-funded, better-staffed, more experienced opponent in court, but he also has to sway a prejudiced all-white jury who, in an informal poll taken the night before Jake's closing argument, cast a unanimously guilty verdict. Whether it's McConaughey's overreliance on his polished, frat-boy good looks, or the filmmakers' determination to showcase their rising young star by constantly photographing him in tight closeups and lighting McConaughey like he was appearing in a Calvin Klein print ad, he seems too shallow to fully comprehend the weight of his dilemma and the futility of his case. Meanwhile, on a personal level, our hero summons all his strength to resist the charms of the brilliant, flirtatious young law student (Sandra Bullock looking fetching but a bit too old to play the ingenue) who materializes out of thin air to make goo-goo eyes at Jake while she helps him with his case. When he isn't battling seemingly insurmountable odds in the courtroom or fighting the urge to lip lock with his alluring assistant, Jake proves himself a macho man of action -- bravely disposing of a bomb that the cops won't touch, administering first aid to shooting victims, or diving into a rioting mob to rescue the local sheriff (Charles S. Dutton), a former NFL ballplayer who outweighs Brigance by 100 pounds or so. Maybe you could have forgiven Grisham if he had only slightly overdone Jake's resourcefulness and nobility; the author has repeatedly stated that the character is heavily autobiographical, and who among us, if given half a chance, would decline the opportunity to jazz up our celluloid selves? Unfortunately, Grisham goes way overboard, romanticizing Jake to the point where you half-expect him to slip into a phone booth and change out of his chinos and into a cape and tights.

But subtlety has never been Grisham's strong suit. So we get an immoral, two-faced D.A. (Kevin Spacey walking in his sleep) who lies through his teeth, never wipes that smug look off his face, and can't get it up. We get a judge named -- I'm not making this up -- Noose (Patrick McGoohan hamming mercilessly). We get Brigance's brilliant, alcoholic mentor (Donald Sutherland struggling to sound southern), and Brigance's equally brilliant, cynical, wisecracking colleague (Oliver Platt), who forsakes his own financially lucrative legal practice specializing in divorce to devote himself to Jake's seemingly unwinnable case. Which is harder to swallow: that every single one of Jake's allies is brilliant, or that a lush would give up booze and a wealthy lawyer give up hefty fees to enlist in Jake's crusade?

Lucky for Jake all the brilliant folks are on his side. The rednecks are dumb as, well, stumps. Take Stump, for example. He's the pinhead who leads the Ku Klux Klan's bone-brained effort to harass Brigance. Then there are the two caricatured scumbags who rape Carl Lee's little girl -- a couple of suds-guzzling, raggedy-ass white trash losers who look about as physically imposing as Beavis and Butt-Head while they cruise through black neighborhoods in broad daylight tossing full beer bottles at residents. Love to see them try that little stunt in Overtown or Liberty City.

While Grisham has one valid point -- that institutionalized racism plagues the U.S. criminal justice system to this day -- he hammers at it so clumsily that you feel like you're being lectured by an earnest but not-too-bright middle-schooler who thinks he's just discovered social injustice. This obvious, overwrought, politically charged mess belongs more to the Sixties than to the Nineties. Justice has never been colorblind, but nowadays the scales are tilted less by a defendant's blackness or whiteness than by his green -- a hue that, for all his ham-handed preaching, multimillionaire Grisham knows only too well.

A Time to Kill.
Written by Akiva Goldsman from the novel by John Grisham; directed by Joel Schumacher; with Matthew McConaughey, Samuel L. Jackson, Kevin Spacey, Sandra Bullock,Charles S. Dutton, Patrick McGoohan,Oliver Platt, andDonald Sutherland.