My weekly movie reviews. You can also read these on letterboxd.
This week focuses on three John Grisham adaptations.
The Firm (1993)
Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
This Grisham adaptation has one of the best casts ever assembled from Cruise to Hackman to Holbrook to Wilford Brimley to Gary Busey to Ed Harris to David Strathairn to the unforgettable Holly Hunter. But as movies in general and even other adaptations of the author’s work have shown, a great cast doesn’t always make a good picture. So who is responsible for the success of this one, arguably the best Grisham film to date?
It must be Sydney Pollack. Who else could command this cast? Who else could rein in this overlong sprawling legal thriller? Pollack could make a serious Hollywood picture like no other, a skill he demonstrated with Out of Africa, Jeremiah Johnson, The Electric Horseman, Three Days of the Condor, and even late efforts such as Random Hearts. His Tootsie even feels like a superior, adult movie compared to the silly crap the studios have generated for decades. And therefore, it’s no surprise that he takes this film across the finish line.
With the help of a committed Tom Cruise, in one of his best early roles, Pollack crafts a tight suspense story that never strays into absurdity like some of the other Grisham movies. It may not be realistic from a legal perspective, but he keeps it real by focusing on the characters and their relationships. That’s why Gene Hackman, terrific as always, doesn’t come off as a typical bad guy and his fate is perhaps the most emotional moment of the movie.
I recently read a comment by Paul Schrader, labeling Pollack’s style as “poetic realism”. It stuck with me and I want to keep watching the filmmaker’s body of work to fully understand what that might mean and how it could even relate to my own movies.
Watched on HBO Max.
Runaway Jury (2003)
Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars
Disregarding the preachiness of this legal thriller, it’s an entertaining if implausible thriller.
It boasts a great cast from sir Gene Hackman to Hoffman to a reliable John Cusack and Rachel Weisz protagonist duo to supporting parts by tons of recognizable faces including Nick Searcy, who I recently worked with on Terror on the Prairie. That ensemble carries the ridiculous but enthralling plot and I found myself thoroughly engaged until the narrative dives deep into its political messaging in the last third. When the film was all about who was tricking who, it had me but as soon as it tried too hard to convince its audience that guns and gun manufacturers are evil, it lost me.
In the end, they should have stuck with the story in John Grisham’s novel because the change makes this otherwise entertaining movie look like the work of an anti-gun lobby.
Watched on Starz
A Time to Kill (1996)
Rating: 1 out of 5 Stars
Oh, it certainly was a different time for filmmaking, when legal thrillers lasted two and a half hours and the best ensemble casts were assembled for serious, socially-minded book adaptations. However, only few of them were any good and A Time to Kill isn’t one of them.
I finally caught up with this John Grisham movie, the third and last in my viewing trilogy. As mentioned, like Runaway Jury and The Firm it includes an impressive group of actors. But somehow they can’t save this embarrassment of a film. On a storytelling level, it’s an embellished disaster. Joel Schumacher, not a subtle filmmaker, handles the narrative like a tabloid column. Everything is sensationalized and hardly believable, from many of the plot developments to the characterizations.
But the real issue with A Time to Kill, and the reason all involved should feel ashamed of themselves, is the cartoonish picture of the South. Everyone sweats in every scene because clearly air conditioning hasn’t reached Canton, Mississippi in the 1980s/90s? Every accent from the non-Southern actors is wrong and some don’t even try (probably a wise move in retrospective). But it’s not just how they sound… none of these people feel like any of the people I’ve met in Mississippi, visiting throughout my childhood and making over five films there. It’s a complete misrepresentation of a people and culture, black and white.
Yes, there are racial issues in the South. Is this the way to go about making a movie about them? No. The film only heightens the stereotyped, inaccurate view non-Southerners have towards a place they don’t understand (and most haven’t even visited) and it only hardens the resentment of Southerners about the way they’ve been portrayed by Hollywood. I know this movie was made over twenty years ago but the problem persists. And I may have to make a documentary about it…
Watched on Tubi.