The film adaptation of John Grisham’s The Client begins with a scene that seems typical of director Joel Schumacher’s style. Right before killing himself, a lawyer tells a powerful secret to an 11-year old boy. It’s a showy, unsubtle scene, full of sweaty tension, and it ends in violent suicide. Fortunately, the rest of the film is more restrained. In fact this is one of the few scenes in the film that betrays Schumacher’s usual overblown, bombastic style.
As the story progresses, the FBI find out that the boy, Mark (Brad Renfro), has learned the lawyer’s secret, namely where the mafia have hidden a murdered senator’s body. They send in their toughest lawyer, the “Reverend” Roy Foltrigg (so called because he piously quotes from the bible in court) to find out the body’s whereabouts from the stubborn, precocious boy. Mark, however, has other ideas. He fears that if he cooperates with Foltrigg (Tommy Lee Jones) and the authorities, then the mob will come after him and his family. So he hires a lawyer, Reggie Love (Susan Sarandon), to stand between him and the courts.
It is in the scenes of legal wrangling between Sarandon and the other lawyers that the film is most alive. We’re obviously meant to root for her because she is the underdog -- a lone woman, recovering from alcoholism and a messy divorce, and with only two years of experience as a lawyer. Her client is just an 11-year old child, but she has the guts and determination to single-handedly take on a whole team of the FBI’s top-dog lawyers on his behalf. So it’s great fun to watch her outsmart her smug, patronising opponents at every move, always thinking ahead like a good chess player. You can almost hear audiences shouting “You go, girl!” at every confrontation.
As usual, Susan Sarandon takes what on paper may seem like a fairly two-dimensional character and brings her to life on the screen as someone warm and likeable, though not without flaws. Brad Renfro, as young Mark, also does very well, playing a child who smokes and swears and is even more jaded and cynical than most adults. Unfortunately, some of the other characters are over-played and end up as stereotypes, such as Mark’s trailer trash mother (Mary Louise Parker), the ruthless, blood-thirsty gangsters and of course the ruthless, blood-thirsty lawyers too.
For the most part it all fits quite neatly into the John Grisham formula. In fact the style and tone of the film is virtually identical to the previous year’s Grisham adaptation, The Firm. It has many of the same features -- the Southern setting, an idealistic lawyer, mafia villains and some quite exciting chase scenes. And it all leads up to a tense, but implausible, race-against-the-clock type of climax.
With director Schumacher reigning in his excessive style for a change and adhering to genre conventions -- in this case the legal thriller genre -- the result is a solid, but unspectacular, piece of entertainment.
(Released by Warner Bros. and rated "PG-13" for language, violence and mature themes.)