Gene Hackman and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio offer magnificent performances in "Class Action," a film that is surprisingly more about human relationships than courtroom grandstanding.

The focus is veteran civil-rights attorney Jedediah Tucker Ward (Hackman) and his estranged relationship with his daughter, Maggie (Mastrantonio), also an attorney. That relationship is put to the ultimate test when they find themselves on opposite sides of a high-profile, multimillion-dollar civil suit filed against a major automobile manufacturer.Jedediah is a workaholic liberal who cheated on his wife (Joanna Merlin) a number of times over the course of their lengthy and one gathers tumultuous marriage. Though his wife has forgiven him and Jedediah has changed his ways, daughter Maggie still harbors a grudge about that and the fact that her father seemed to drop certain clients after using them to gain fame and book sales.

So Maggie has purposely avoided her father's help-the-little-guy legal antics and gone to work for a huge corporate law firm that specializes in gouging the little guy for the sake of huge fees.

She's about to make partner in the firm, and the case that will put her over the top is her father's lawsuit

MOVIE against Argo Motors, claiming quite a few cars of a certain 1985 model have exploded on impact due to the company's negligence in manufacturing them.

Maggie is vindictively happy to take on her father - despite Mom's pleadings to drop the case - and the two of them gear up to go after each other in court.

While on the surface this sounds like a dark variation of the classic Hepburn-Tracy comedy "Adam's Rib," there's much more going on here.

In fact, the bulk of the film is about Maggie - clearly the central character in a huge and wonderful ensemble cast - coming to terms with her own feelings about her father.

Director Michael Apted ("Coal Miner's Daughter," "Gorillas in the Mist" and the superb documentary "27 Up") has taken what could have been a routine courtroom drama and built instead a stunning study of familial love and misunderstanding. And he allows the legal storyline to serve the character study as we see Mastrantonio gradually change and grow.

She's wonderful, and if this movie were later in the year it would be a sure-thing Oscar nominee.

Hackman is also Oscar-worthy as a man whose past is complex, causing a cauldron of mixed emotions to bubble within. He, too, must come to terms with his life and his relationship with his daughter - and it won't be easy.

The supporting cast is equally remarkable: Merlin, so good as Hackman's wife and Mastrantonio's mother you'll wish she could be onscreen more than she is; Colin Friels, who is making quite a career of playing quiet villains, as Mastrantonio's boss and boyfriend; Larry Fishburne as Hackman's friend and associate; Donald Moffat as the head of Mastrantonio's firm; and Jan Rubes as an old scientist who worked for the auto plant.

"Class Action" is rated R for profanity (though not a lot) and a mild sex scene.