Maybe John Grisham should take a page from Stephen King and start putting his name in the title of movies adapted from his books. This is "John Grisham's A Time to Kill" more than it is a director's film.
As directed by the ever-superficial Joel Schumacher (Grisham's "The Client," "Batman Forever,"
"Dying Young") and co-produced by Grisham, "A Time to Kill" is extremely faithful to the lawyer-writer's book. And that's the problem.
There is so much plot crammed into this 21/2-hour thriller that instead of an epic, ensemble tale of racism in modern America, it becomes an episodic, skim-the-surface series of melodramatic skits.
And all the best lines are in the previews.
The A-list cast is first-rate, of course, and each member tries hard to do something more with it. Sandra Bullock fans are in for the biggest disappointment, since despite her top billing Bullock's law-school-whiz character is merely a supporting role. And her contrived romance with Matthew McConaughey is one of the film's most underdeveloped elements (and there are many).
The story has Samuel L. Jackson playing a blue-collar family man in Mississippi whose 10-year-old daughter is assaulted and nearly killed by a pair of drunken redneck thugs. Because the girl is black and the thugs are white, Jackson fears they will get off with a light sentence, so he enters the country courthouse the night before their arraignment, waits until the next morning and bursts out of a closet to blow them away.
Jackson's arrest and subsequent trial becomes a political football as the grandstanding prosecutor whose eye is on the governor's mansion (Kevin Spacey) aggressively goes after Jackson's hide. But the focus here is on Jackson's lawyer (hot newcomer McConaughey), a down-and-out idealist with a young daughter and a sexy wife (Ashley Judd).
McConaughey knows this case could put him on the map, and the film is mainly concerned with his struggle to find a balance for his integrity and his desire to care for his family, without forgetting that Jackson's life is on the line.
But the movie also has bigger fish to fry, delving into racism, civil rights, political corruption, community standards, freedom in the New South, legal ethics and myriad other issues. (How'd they miss alcoholism and nicotine addiction since everyone drinks and smokes quite heavily in this film?)
Instead of slowing down to develop a few of these ideas, however, "A Time to Kill" instead uses them as touchstones, hopping over each one and hurrying to the next.
Screenwriter Akiva Goldsman ("The Client," "Batman Forever" and the dreadful "Silent Fall"), perhaps under orders from Grisham, tries to keep everything from the book. But the result is strained lots of flamboyant moments but no foundation for any of them.
A striking example is a courtroom scene near the end of the film (which has been shown too many times in the previews), where Spacey is trying to get Jackson riled up on the witness stand. When Jackson blurts out his big line " . . . and I hope they burn in hell!" it doesn't elicit the expected audience response because it simply comes too quickly. How can dramatic tension be relieved when no dramatic tension has been developed? It's just another fleeting moment that quickly comes and goes.
The cast really is terrific, and cool and measured Jackson, flamboyant Spacey, drunken but wise Donald Sutherland, ever-sneering Ku Klux Klan leader Kiefer Sutherland (who is unbilled), stoic and wounded cop Chris Cooper and many others (including British actors Brenda Fricker and Patrick McGoohan as Southerners) get their moment or two to shine. But to no avail.
In fact, amid all this high-power talent, it's a surprise that Oliver Platt steals the show, playing a slovenly divorce lawyer who provides comic relief. The film is so stern and sincere that the audience feels relief just seeing him come onscreen.
The person getting the most press right now is McConaughey, of course. He's riding Hollywood's hype wave, and he does deliver a strong presence and a capable performance. His big moment comes toward the end of the film in an extended monologue as he offers his summation to the jury. He handles it quite well, and the scene provides an interesting moment, simply because it relies so heavily on the actor. Schumacher resists the urge to show flashbacks and just lets the actor do his thing, recounting the events that have put Jackson on the stand.
But that scene also flies in the face of the more than two hours that precede it, since the rest of the movie is about big, bombastic, sensationalized movie moments however simplistic, cluttered and over the top they may be.
In the end, "A Time to Kill" is a lot like Spacey's character grand-standing, speechifying, manipulative, evasive, meandering and unable to reach its potential.
Maybe giving an author all that control isn't such a good idea after all.
"A Time to Kill" is rated R for violence, rape, profanity, racial epithets and marijuana smoking (by one of the rednecks early in the film). The film deserves its R, though none of this material is as graphic as it might have been.