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A Time To Kill (1996)

  Directed by: Joel Schumacher
Written by: Akiva Goldsman, John Grisham
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Samuel L. Jackson, Matthew McConaughey, Kevin Spacey
Links: A Time To Kill on the IMDb, Buy on Video, Buy on DVD, Buy the Soundtrack, Buy the Book
Genre: Drama

This movie gets: 6.00 (1 rating) Ranking: not yet ranked (awaiting 2 ratings)

A Time To Kill (1996) is also mentioned in mino's review of A Civil Action (1998), em_fiction's review of Runaway Jury (2003) and mino's review of Snow Falling on Cedars (1999).

"Solid, but more of the same" - a review by mino

The ‘legal drama’ genre is the fish-in-a-barrel of filmmaking, as far as I'm concerned. While I'm no Eddie Expert in the field of cinema, I'm pretty sure that making a thriller from a John Grisham-type novel is basically free money for a filmmaker.

First, you have to get someone to throw together a novel about some stereotyped characters and their heroic struggle against the odds. Just pick whether you want a civil or criminal case, then choose the characters. You can either go for the good, kind-hearted but unsuccessful lawyer battling to defend some poor schmo from an enormous misunderstanding or beat-up against a slimy, smarmy, well-funded prosecutor; or you can go for the underfunded public prosecutor struggling to nail some evil mastermind who's using every trick their slimy, smarmy, well-funded attorneys can come up with to get them off some heinous crime.

Put in plenty of legal jargon, a stern judge who seems to go out of his way to deny the plaintiffs or the defendants (delete where inappropriate) their natural justice, extended scenes of courtroom confrontation, lots of objections, impassioned speeches, some setbacks to be overcome, a bit where some bright young thing finds some disused precedent in some dusty old archives to overcome the biggest hurdle, and maybe a token love interest and a little bit of controversy about something like abortion or sex abuse or AIDS or racial discrimination or kiddies with leukemia for some ‘film-school cred’, throw in a couple of big-name stars who could act the whole thing blindfolded because they've seen the same basic movie so many times that it's not funny, and there's your movie.

This formula worked for A Few Good Men (1992) and Erin Brockovich (2000); it worked for Philadelphia (1993) and To Kill A Mockingbird (1962); hell, it worked for Legally Blonde (2001). Why wouldn't it work for A Time To Kill? And, to a certain extent, it does.

It hardly seems worth filling in the details of the plot here but, what the heck, I'll give it a bash. In this case, Matthew McConaughey is the good, kind-hearted but unsuccessful lawyer. His client is Samuel L. Jackson, a father on trial for gunning down the folk who raped and tortured his young daughter. The smarmy prosecutor is Kevin Spacey and, hoo-boy, is he smarmy. Throw in the love-interest-slash-star-researcher Sandra Bullock, and you've got a movie ready to run.

So, is it any good? Well, yes and no. The reason these movies are always so successful is (and you can be as cynical about this as you like; I know I am) that they work. Sure, they're formulaic and clichéd, but they push all the right buttons so effectively that they really are quite entertaining to watch. It's all been done before, but in a way that's almost comforting, rather than annoying: a good legal thriller is like a well-worn T-shirt, one that just feels good. As long as the acting's at least moderately competent, it's pretty hard to screw it up, to be honest. And, hey, if you want a John Grisham-type legal thriller, you can probably do a lot worse than use a John Grisham novel as your base.

What makes A Time To Kill probably stick out a little bit above some of the other films of this type is that it contains some very good acting indeed. Spacey, while playing a very formulaic role, is exceptionally well-suited to arrogant, smarmy characters (think Jack Vincennes from L. A. Confidential (1997), and any number of others) and if you're going to use the slimy prosecutor role, he's a damn good choice. Samuel L Jackson is also a wonderful actor: though this isn't his best role, the righteous anger he shows here is pretty electrifying. McConaughey, someone for whom I don't have much time, is actually pretty good as the young Southern lawyer tiptoing his way through a racial minefield. The one disappointment is Sandra Bullock but, even though my thoughts on here are probably well-known by now, the fact is that she's not that bad as the clever young law student who helps out on the case — it's more that the role itself is so superfluous and irritating that it wouldn't really matter who played it. There's a fine supporting cast too, notably Oliver Platt as McConaughey's ally, Ashley Judd as McConaughey's wife (a mixed performance at best), and the interestingly contrasting pairing of Donald Sutherland and Kiefer Sutherland as an old retired knave of a lawyer and the KKK-involved brother of the accused respectively.

It's hard to find fault with A Time To Kill, and it's certainly a competent movie. It's just that it's kind of hard to get very inspired about these kinds of films, because they're so commonplace. While very good for what it is, it's not really a hunt-down-and-see-at-all-costs kind of film: it is what it is, and it's certainly very entertaining. It's just nothing earth-shattering, that's all.

mino gives this movie 6 out of 10.
Review created on Mon 5 Jul 2004

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