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‘The Client’ (PG-13)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 22, 1994

Last year, in preparation for seeing Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington in "The Pelican Brief," I read the original John Grisham novel. I looked forward to the movie, but watching "Pelican" became a petty matter of comparing the similarities -- or lack thereof -- to the original, uh, text.

This year, I started leafing through "The Client," knowing it was coming out as a movie. But then I stopped. Suddenly I decided to be the only person in America not seen frantically snorting Grisham on the subway. I felt like walking up to those commuting readers and saying: "REPEAT AFTER ME: 'I AM AN INDIVIDUAL. I DO NOT HAVE TO READ JOHN GRISHAM BECAUSE EVERYONE ELSE IS READING HIM!!!' "

Of course, I made no such assault. But I was free at last, free at last. It worked out beautifully too. "The Client," directed by Joel Schumacher and starring Susan Sarandon and Tommy Lee Jones, is mindless, non-taxing fun, especially if you haven't read the book.

In the movie,, an 11-year-old (played by terrific newcomer Brad Renfro) is sneaking a cigarette in the woods with kid brother David Speck, when he sees a desperate lawyer (Walter Olkewicz) trying to kill himself with carbon monoxide from his car's exhaust pipe.

When Renfro tries to intervene, the lawyer pulls him into the car and decides to take the kid with him. Conveniently for the plot, the lawyer blabs out his entire story. Renfro learns about a mobster (the lawyer's client) who has murdered a senator. He is also told where the body is buried.

Escaping from the lawyer -- who promptly shoots himself -- Renfro is free but in new danger. Now an unwilling witness and information source, he's wanted by everyone, including the feds, led by high-powered federal prosecutor Jones, and the mobster guilty of the murder. When Renfro "hires" (with one dollar) resilient attorney Sarandon, he holds his own against opponents on both sides of the law.

"The Client" is a very diverting thriller, at least as enjoyable as "The Firm" (the other Grisham-based movie). Director Schumacher, who made "Falling Down," "Flatliners" and "St. Elmo's Fire," engineers every moment perfectly, with the help of strong performances from Sarandon, Renfro and Jones.

Whether the movie follows the book closely -- and whether it even matters -- is for "Client" readers to discover on their own. But the film certainly has all the Grishamy things you'd expect or want. It has the usual round of airport-novelistic characterization. Sarandon, we discover, is a recovering alcoholic. Jones, a federal prosecutor who loves publicity, just wants to be governor. Boy do we have their number.

"Client" is also full of amusing moments, particularly from Ossie Davis as the imperious, twinkly-eyed judge who confounds Jones in a preliminary hearing; and the psychotically endearing Will Patton as a Tennessee cop determined to milk information out of Renfro. For kids who hinder justice by not telling what they know, he tells Renfro, "they got a special kid-sized electric chair."

THE CLIENT (PG-13) — Contains profanity and violence.

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