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Classic Movie Review: A Time to Kill (1996) August 18, 2011

Posted by pacejmiller in Movie Reviews, Reviews.
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After reading the book of the same name by John Grisham (my review here), several people have recommended that I watch the film adaptation of A Time to Kill, directed by Joel Schumacher and starring Matthew McConaughey (in his breakout role).  It’s one of those films that I really wanted to, but for whatever reason never saw when it was first released in 1996.

For those who don’t know the background, it’s Grisham’s first book but the fourth of his adaptations (behind The Firm, The Pelican Brief and The Client).  It stars McConaughey as a young hotshot lawyer, Jake Brigance, who is tasked with defending a black father who took the law into his own hands after two white drunks raped his little girl.  Due to the racial politics of the time and place (very important to remember when watching), Brigance not only has to fight a seemingly unwinnable case, but also has to deal with the dangers of representing a black man in a racist community.

I quite liked the book, but didn’t think it was anything special.  For me, the film version was a rare improvement on the book that addressed some of the things I felt the book could have done better.

For starters, Brigance is a much more likeable character in the film than the book, where he was more egocentric, obnoxious, and cared far too much about publicity.  In the film they really toned it down and made him more of a ‘hero’, which works well because the audience really needed to connect with him.

The second big alteration is that Ellen Roark, the brilliant college student played by Sandra Bullock, is given a much bigger role in the film than the book.  In the book, Roark doesn’t appear until halfway through, but in the film she’s there almost right from the beginning.  In fact, Bullock received top billing even though she was a secondary character — most probably because she was coming of the phenomenal success of Speed and The Net and was a huge cash cow at the time.  Nevertheless, I liked Roark’s expanded role because I always felt she was one of the more interesting characters in the book.

Plenty of scenes, characters and subplots were condensed or removed in the film version, which I personally thought was welcoming because they clogged up the central narrative and slowed the pace.  When I read the book I always felt there was something not quite right in the structure and the development of the plot, as though Grisham couldn’t figure out what was important to the story and what wasn’t.  In the film, they were able to adjust the equilibrium to create a smoother, less stilted delivery.  For instance, I was glad to see the actual trial commence relatively early, unlike the book, which waited until the final 100 pages or so.  The final climax, in particular, was reformulated to make it more about Brigance’s ability than luck, which made for much better cinema.

The most pleasant surprise for me was the number of stars or would-be stars in this film and outstanding performances they delivered.  Of course, McConaughey went on to be a big star after this film, and even though I’ve paid him out ever since Contact (‘By doing this, you’re willing to give your life, you’re willing to die for it. Whyyyyyyy?!!’), I must admit he was excellent here as Brigance.  It also made his solid performance in the more recent Lincoln Lawyer easier to comprehend.

I already mentioned Sandra Bullock as the top-billed star of the film, and she was probably at the height of her stardom at the time (some may say she was ‘bigger’ when she won the Oscar, but I disagree), just before Speed 2: Cruise Control knocked her down a few notches.

Of course, there was also Samuel L Jackson, one of my favourite actors in one of the best performances of his career as the father, Carl Lee Hailey (I’d still say Pulp Fiction was his greatest achievement, but others might say Snakes on a Plane or Deep Blue Sea or perhaps The Search for One-eye Jimmy).  In 1996, Jackson was coming off a string of less than impressive films (with the exception of Die Hard with a Vengeance) and this film helped boost him back up to where he belonged, as he would then go on to appear in a number of blockbusters/hits over the next couple of years, such as  Jackie Brown, Sphere, The Negotiator and Out of Sight.

The list of goes on.  There’s Kevin Spacey as the snooty DA, Rufus Buckley, who was, as usual, marvellous, and one of the highlights of the film.  He brought out the essence of Buckley without overdoing it, making him less of a caricature than he was in the novel.  Remember, in 1996 Spacey was coming off his masterful performances in Seven and The Usual Suspects,  and would go on to appear in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, LA Confidential and The Negotiator, right before his career defining performance in American Beauty in 1999 (personally, Verbal Kint is still my favourite).

What about the always-good-to-have-around Oliver Platt, who plays Brigance’s best buddy Harry Rex, or Donald Sutherland, who plays Brigance’s mentor Lucien Wilbanks?  What about veteran actor Chris Cooper as poor officer Dwayne Looney, before he rose to prominence in films like American Beauty, The Bourne Identity and Adaptation?  Or Ashley Judd as wife Carly, at the start of her strong career, before she broke out in films such as Kiss the Girls, Double Jeopardy and Eye of the Beholder?  Heck, there was even Mr Jack Bauer himself, Kiefer Sutherland, as a KKK redneck, before he became the butt-kicking CTU agent in 24.  I knew the film starred McConaughey, Bullock and Jackson, but it was a pleasant surprise to see just how much star power this film had.

In all, I enjoyed A Time to Kill (the film) a lot more than I thought I would.  Yes, it is a little self-righteous, melodramatic and contrived at times, but for the most part it was still an entertaining, thrilling, though-provoking courtroom drama that was boosted by its awesome star power.

4 out of 5 stars

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