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'The Client' (PG-13)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 20, 1994

For a thriller set in Memphis, "The Client" doesn't have much swivel in its hips. Directed by Joel Schumacher from the book by Mile High Club novelist John Grisham, it twists and turns in all the expected places, and almost never rises above the ordinary. Briskly paced and routinely entertaining, it's exactly like the novel on which it is based -- well-crafted, upscale junk.

The picture is pure high-concept: A worldly 11-year-old named Mark (Brad Renfro) learns the location of a senator's corpse from a suicidal lawyer and subsequently becomes the target of both the mobsters who killed the senator and the lawyers investigating the crime.

This opening gambit, where Mark and his 9-year-old brother, Ricky (David Speck), sneak into the woods behind their trailer park home for an illicit smoke, generates about the only true moments of suspense. Almost before the boys can light up, the attorney -- a sweaty 300-pounder named Romey (Walter Olkewicz) -- pulls up in his black Cadillac and jams one end of a garden hose in a window, one in the exhaust.

Looking on from his hiding place in the brush, Mark decides to play hero and, as a result, gets an earful from the big man. Figuring that they're both going to die, he not only squeals about the corpse but also fingers the hit man -- a dumbo Mafioso with a dagger earring, named Barry "the Knife" Muldano -- (Anthony LaPaglia).

The twist (if that's what you want to call it) in the story is that the lawyers and FBI men trying to track down little Mark seem almost as corrupt and ambitious as the mobsters. They are led by a publicity-seeking state's attorney, Roy Foltrigg, a k a "Reverend Roy" (Tommy Lee Jones), who's willing to do almost anything to get a leg up in his run for the governor's mansion, even if it means throwing Mark in jail.

The third major player in the drama is Reggie Love, the attorney Mark runs to for protection when Foltrigg turns up the heat. As Susan Sarandon plays her, she's earthy and experienced and nobody's fool. Because of Sarandon, Reggie is the only character here who does more than react to events and push the plot forward. A recovered alcoholic whose kids were taken away in a bitter custody battle, Reggie talks a tough line, but beneath the bluster there's always a hint of vulnerability and self-doubt.

This human dimension in Reggie gives the child in Mark something to hold on to. In a way, they're very much alike. Raised by a caring but overburdened mother (nicely played by Mary-Louise Parker), Mark hasn't had much chance to be a kid, and Renfro does an exceptional job of showing how his cocky arrogance is a mask behind which the scared little boy hides.

Unfortunately, the film rarely slows long enough for the actors to do anything more than sketch in their characters. On the other hand, the showdowns between Sarandon and Jones are choice; it's a meeting of charismatic equals. In recent years, Jones has developed into one of the most authoritative actors in the movies, and his ability to create his characters in swift, bold strokes is put to good use here. He does a lip-smacking job with this role, but it's too one-dimensional to be considered one of his best.

As a director, Joel Schumacher is known for his slick, big-budget approach to contemporary issue pictures ("The Accused," "Falling Down"), but while the material here calls out for a more personal touch to give it some uniqueness, his style retains its air of competent detachment. Actually, Schumacher is the ideal filmmaker to adapt Grisham's books to the screen. Both are dependable and efficient, and both create work that seems completely devoid of personal investment.

The Client is rated PG-13.

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