Lawyers, race and bigots -- oh sigh Review: Grisham's "A Time to Kill" is death by predictability with its outdated tale of justice in the South.

July 24, 1996|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

Purity, rare enough in this tarnished world, should be celebrated on those rare occasions when it manages to surface. And that is why "A Time To Kill" should be cherished -- it is 100 percent pure, high-grade, solid-gold hokum.

No stone and no cliche are left unturned in its quest for utter mediocrity and lowest-common-denominator crowd-pleasing. So dedicated to the pursuit of unoffending middlebrow box-office success is "A Time to Kill" that it seems to believe staleness is a ticket to heaven.

Derived from John Grisham's purportedly "best novel" (if so, I'd hate to read his worst!), it's the story of the young liberal lawyer in the bigoted Southern town who helps a noble black man stand against the forces of injustice and tyranny, while almost bedding the saucy Northern anti-capital-punishment activist. Why is it taking place in 1996 instead of 1958? Don't ask me.

All the '58 stereotypes are in abundant supply: mellifluous judge, evil, smirky prosecutor, drunken law professor, cynical divorce lawyer pal, good ol' dog, morally pure African-American, Cro-Magnon white racists. Every woman is covered with gleamy goo to signify sultry sweat; the Vaseline budget alone must have been in the hundreds of thousands!

Only one remarkable scene exists in all this extremely familiar territory: in a sequence not surprisingly the movie's best, defendant Carl Lee Hailey (Samuel L. Jackson) and his lawyer Jake Brigance (Matthew McConaughey) bluff down a threat from a huge legal concern that wants to take over the defense to advance its own smug agenda. And who are these carpetbaggers? Why, it's the NAACP! Talk about playing both ends against the middle!

As Grisham has it, abetted by the dedicated middle-brow stylings of director Joel Schumacher, one fine day two drunken scumbelly low-rent egg-sucking chicken-stealing gutter-trash dirty white boys kidnap, rape and otherwise brutalize an angelic black child. They are routinely arrested after doing nothing to disguise their guilt. This being Canton, Miss., however, some doubt exists as to whether a white jury is capable of finding white men guilty of a crime against a black child. So her father, evidently a Vietnam vet, digs up his M-16, intercepts them on the way out of the courtroom, and blows them away.

Understandably indicted for two counts of murder in the first, he chooses struggling young Jake as his defense lawyer for the seemingly simple reason that Jake once represented a cousin. As it turns out, he had a subtler reason in mind, and that's one major problem with the film. There's no doubt that Samuel L. Jackson is a major actor, but his Carl Lee is a scattered phenomenon. On the one hand, he's every terrified black minstrel at the hands of the white mob, a shuckin', sir-sayin' scuffler with Willie Best's piping voice and Stepin Fetchit's ever-smiley face. Yet on the other, he's capable of maneuvering his lawyers, offering shrewd insights, almost taking over his own defense. It's Jackson's fault that he can make no inner sense of these contradictions: We never sense the presence of the shrewder man behind the facade of the more superficial -- he just seems to be, alternatingly, two different men.

Then there's McConaughey, this year's Next Big Thing. But will he be next year's Still Big Thing? Extremely handsome in that sullen, pouty, male-model way, he does more runway posing than acting. Moreover, the movie is really pitched to him: He has all the good lines, he delivers all the speeches, he gets to do the big summation, he has 80 percent of the close-ups and on and on. In fact, nominal star Sandra Bullock, as the out-of-towner who pitches in because she hates the death penalty, is definitely second banana. He's very pretty, but can he act? Well, he's not bad. Yet he didn't sear the screen in the way a Nicholson did in "Five Easy Pieces" or a Meg Ryan did in "Top Gun" or even a Stallone in "Rocky." But if they ever do "The Paul Newman Story," he's the man.

Bullock, in the lesser role, pretty much shows what stardom really is. She steals the movie with vivid charm, never pushing it, just playing for laughs and small moments, even though she has to work through the plot's weakest contrivance: she has to sneak into the office of a psychiatrist at a state mental institution who A) occupies the first floor and B) left his window open.

That stroke gets at the movie's most appalling weakness. It utterly lacks cleverness: No one could solve the getting-into-the-locked-room puzzle with anything better than the old "Oh, he left his window open" gag? And all the way through, "A Time to Kill" conspicuously lacks twists. This is most evident in poor McConaughey's summation, which merely reiterates material already in evidence -- only this time he cries.

Compared to such brilliant examples of the genre -- "Witness for the Prosecution" comes to hand, as does "Anatomy of a Murder," or even the recent "Primal Fear" -- "A Time to Kill" comes up short in the courtroom drama department. At least the butler didn't do it, but if the writers could have figured out a way, they would have.

'A Time to Kill'

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Samuel L. Jackson and Sandra Bullock

Directed by: Joel Schumacher

Released by: Warner Bros.

Rated: R (violence to children, profanity)

Sun score: **

Pub Date: 7/24/96

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