A Time to Kill

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 

John Grisham’s best seller A Time to Kill hits the screen with incendiary force, directed by Joel Schumacher (The Client). Sandra Bullock, Samuel L. Jackson, Matthew McConaughey and Kevin Spacey play the principals in a murder trial that brings a small Mississippi town’s racial tensions to the fiashpoint. Amid activist marches, Klan terror, media clamor and brutal riots, an unseasoned but idealistic attorney mounts a stirring courtroom battle for justice. The superb ensemble also includes Brenda Fricker, Oliver Platt, Charles S. Dutton, Ashley Judd, Patrick McGoohan, Chris Cooper and both Donald and Kiefer Sutherland.

This gets your right-wing juices flowing! I love courtroom thrillers and thought this one of the best Grisham adaptations. Well, it could be, but the more I see it, the clearer it is that the story is shamefully manipulative and unambitious. Everything is painted so very broad and some scenes are almost farcical and childish. There is nothing original in the plot and in fact, some of it, like McConaughey and Judd’s marriage heading for the rocks, is very lazily handled. I don’t think there is even a structure to speak of. You expect certain things to happen, in a certain order, and they do. Just a shame there’s no subtlety.

I expect if they were to film it again today, it would be more powerful, with a well-played irony. Maybe something like Crash or Changeling. One thing you can be sure of, no way would it be so entertaining! These sort of films always pull great casts and this is one of, if not the best. Some like Matthew McConaughey and Sandra Bullock are at their best, despite being fed sub-par characters, others already so good, they wrap their tonsils around the killer lines with ease (Kevin Spacey, Donald Sutherland, Brenda Fricker, Patrick McGoohan). There wasn’t a weak point in the cast, except maybe whatever-happened-to-Ashley Judd, but whatever-happened-to-Oliver Platt makes it balance just by turning up. This is back in the days when Samuel L. Jackson would keep his shouty quotable lines to minimum (Lakeview Terrace is a recent return to form). “Yes, they deserve to die and I hope they burn in hell!” is a classic to rival Jack Nicholson barking “You can’t handle the truth!” at little Tommy Cruise.

That line sums up exactly how director Joel Schumacher wants you the viewer to feel and you probably will despite yourself because it is such a great cast and the plot is so exaggerated. We don’t just get racists, we get a specially formed brand new charter of the Klan, no less! You’ll boil at the injustice! Punch the air when McConaughey sneakily punches the would be bomber! And cheer when it turns out the dog survived! Well of course he was going to survive, but that’s what I mean. You can’t help yourself. And what’s wrong with a bit of eye-for-an-eye vigilantism anyway?

It’s absolute bollocks, but bollocks of the highest quality and a monument to the outrageous style Schumacher had before he disappeared up his own arse and found Batman and Robin. He finally produced the excellent Tigerland, but this is more memorable for all the very wrong and grimy reasons.

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