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Olympian "A Time to Kill"

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Photo by Christine Loss

Legal thriller is a veritable decathlon of bad filmmaking

By Richard von Busack

The latest screen adaptation of a John Grisham bestseller, A Time to Kill, is distinguished in all of the categories of bad filmmaking; it is a veritable decathlon. The crowded narrative includes revenge killings, the lure of adultery and klansman attacks (at one point, the hooded devils are distributing flaming crosses on a number of lawns from the back of a pickup, like paper boys).

The script is a confusing sprawl that assures us, for example, a marriage is domestic bliss in one scene and then, in another, that the marriage is crumbling. We also have a lead actress (Sandra Bullock) who cavorts like a complete bimbo but is, we're assured, a genius. Also: not one, not two, but three hard-drinking characters who get rehabilitated and help our hero in the clutch. Lastly, there is a dog that rises from the dead.

Jake Brigance (Matthew McConaughey), an amiable but debt-ridden small-town Mississippi lawyer, takes the case of Carl Lee (Samuel L. Jackson), a father who killed the two men who raped his 10-year-old daughter. The case is complicated by the ambitions of a ruthless DA, Rufus Buckley (Kevin Spacey), and by the fact that the outraged father was black and the two boys who did the deed were white.

Freddie Cobb (Kiefer Sutherland), the brother of one of the dead rapists, stirs up the Klan; well-meaning black folk play the fabled race card; and soon the National Guard has to keep everyone tranquil in time for the courtroom scenes. The defense is sweating bullets, literally; the only one not covered with a sheen of sweat is the evil Buckley. In Spacey's few scenes, it is as if the management had turned on the air conditioning in the theater for a minute.

What makes Brigance sweat worse are the attentions of Ellen Roark (Bullock), a law student who decides to help out the defense free of charge. She offers her services in a way guaranteed to gain Brigance's respect: by sitting on the hood of her Porsche like a pinup and tossing him a beer as he leaves the office.

Tempted by the flesh as well as by self-doubt, Brigance must stumble over piles of discarded Southern tropes to get to the truth. There's no real relief from the supporting cast, which includes Oliver Platt, sporting an Elvis haircut and clad in a suit Beetlejuice would have considered too loud; freakish Patrick McGoohan as a sort of "Judge Noose" (no wonder Brigance asks for a change of venue); and Ashley Judd, one of the true authentic Southerners in the cast, forced into Pia Zadora­level ditziness.

I'm not certain that better direction could have saved A Time to Kill. In well over two hours, all there is to admire is the work of Jackson's dialogue coach. The story, preserved from Grisham, is so unambiguous that it doesn't really ring with drama. The question underlying A Time to Kill is whether a man ought to shoot someone who raped his kid. Few have strong feelings to the negative of this notion, and Grisham, citing Ecclesiastics in his title, obviously has his mind made up.

The film clarifies matters even more by identifying the suspects unimpeachably (anyone in the legal profession will chortle at the way the sheriff bangs a crucial piece of evidence on the bar to attract the attention of the rapists, who are there toasting their crime). To distract from the simplicity of the issue, Grisham, director Joel Schumacher and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman try everything to divert you, but the end result of all the cinematic sidebarring is a narrative flow about as orderly as a herd of cats.

Worse, the warnings by everyone in Brigance's life not to persist, that he's hurting his loved ones by pursuing the case, are stressed countless times. You should follow your dream, but you shouldn't pursue it too hard--it's a typical clarion call to mediocrity in a movie that says so little while trying to say so much.


A Time to Kill (R; 145 min.), directed by Joel Schumacher, written by Akiva Goldsman, based on the novel by John Grisham, photographed by Peter Menzies, Jr. and starring Samuel L. Jackson, Matthew McConaughey and Sandra Bullock.

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From the August 1-7, 1996 issue of Metro

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