We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Never mind Independence Day—the world as we know it is destroyed by fire in A Time to Kill, the entertainingly overstimulated legal thriller based on the novel allegedly closest to author John Grisham’s heart. Choreographing a Mississippi meltdown almost as feverish as the first half of Mississippi Burning, director Joel Schumacher repaints New South racial animosity with exceptionally broad strokes, making Dead Man Walking and even To Kill a Mockingbird look subtle by comparison.
The scenario—adapted to film by Akiva Goldsman, a veteran of Schumacher/Grisham’s The Client and Schumacher’s Batman Forever—includes many elements familiar from previous Grisham tales (which I know only from the screen, not the page). There’s the inexperienced but honorable lawyer who rises to the occasion, the initially spooked but ultimately loyal wife, and the officious, possibly corrupt legal aristocracy. The plot is standard-issue Grisham (and Hollywood) wish-fulfillment: the well-meaning triumph over the well-connected. But Time juices the righteousness with arson, intimidation, bombs—and the Ku Klux Klan.
Where the bracingly complex Dead Man Walking tried to locate the humanity in a scuzzball murderer, Time presents only the noblest of killers: African-American lumber-mill worker Carl Lee Hailey (Samuel L. Jackson) shoots down two stereotypically crazed redneck dirtballs after they brutally rape and torture his 10-year-old daughter. (Demonstrating stiff upper lip worthy of a British war flick, the daughter’s first post-rape words to Carl Lee are “Daddy, I’m sorry I dropped the groceries.”) Carl Lee turns to fellow underdog Jake Brigance (current Vanity Fair cover hunk Matthew McConaughey), a young white lawyer with a stillborn local practice. He’s out of his league, but then the protagonists in Grisham parables always are.
Reluctantly accepting the assistance of plucky Boston liberal law student Ellen Roark (top-billed Sandra Bullock in a supporting role) and drawing on the expertise of his defeated, disbarred mentor (Donald Sutherland), Jake faces an officious D.A. (Kevin Spacey) before an unsympathetic judge (Patrick McGoohan). It will be a triumph if Jake saves Carl Lee from execution, but he (and the film) wants more than that, of course: The accused must be found not guilty.
Like most cinematic trials, Carl Lee’s proceeds with unlikely haste. Jake, Ellen, and Jake’s frivolous divorce-lawyer pal (Oliver Platt) must cobble together a winning strategy at night while the former tries the case by day. Adding to the sense of urgency is the pressure being applied by the Klan, which has been invited to town by the outraged brother of one of the slain rapists (Kiefer Sutherland, already wearing out his welcome as a vicious sleaze). The hood-wearing hoods drive Jake’s wife (an underused Ashley Judd) and daughter from town, terrorize his secretary (Brenda Fricker, mostly suppressing her Irish accent) and her husband, and plot the deaths of both Jake and Ellen.
This is savage stuff, but Time reveals what sort of movie it is when Jake sits in the ashes of his torched house, lamenting the fate of his dog Max, who was locked inside. Schumacher waits just long enough for the more susceptible audience members to tear up, then sends Max racing to his master. Plenty of characters are brutalized and killed during this race-war fable, but it’s not the sort of flick that could let a faithful pet die.
Schumacher and Grisham are apparently well-matched: Neither seems comfortable with surprises that most viewers couldn’t anticipate, and both embrace classic Hollywood hokum about noble outsiders and regular guys who flourish under exceptional challenges. They’re so equitably anti-establishment that they assail the NAACP in passing, while McConaughey’s Jake is such a regular guy that Grisham’s veto of Woody Harrelson for the role is inexplicable; McConaughey (here sharing a little screen time with Lone Star co-star Chris Cooper) is clearly just a few movies away from being indistinguishable from Harrelson. The only halfway original characterization is Ellen, a woman so sure of her sexual irresistibility that she doesn’t have to wreck Jake’s marriage. (Think of her as the female law-student counterpart of Han Solo.)
Legally, Time’s scenario is problematic: Jake, for example, is a witness and perhaps even an accomplice to Carl Lee’s attack, which would generally disqualify him from representing the attacker. He also misses a good half-dozen opportunities to ask for a mistrial. Still, the film’s silliness is brisk silliness; with bombs and riots to turn to when the law books get dull, Schumacher fills this 145-minute spectacle to the brim. In the process, the film glibly debases its themes, but it does so with gusto.
Another low-budget view of glamorous Manhattan as dullsville (or dullardsville), writer/director Nicole Holofcener’s Walking and Talking even features one of the actors from Denise Calls Up. Unlike in that film, where busy New Yorkers found it impossible to reach out and touch someone except on the phone, in this one the characters actually leave their apartments. Usually, though, it’s just to go to the video store.
Holofcener’s tale is reasonably engaging, mostly because of Amelia (Living in Oblivion’s Catherine Keener) and Laura (Anne Heche), childhood best friends who have gradually drifted apart. The two used to be roommates, but now Laura lives with Frank (Todd Field), who has just asked her to marry him. Amelia is between boyfriends, which makes her all the less amenable to Laura’s signing a permanent contract with Frank. She even decides to date video-store clerk Bill (Kevin Corrigan), a longtime admirer she calls “the ugly guy.”
Ugly is as ugly does, and Bill is a cinematic gore-freak who takes Amelia to slasher movies and a special-effects-geek convention. Remarkably, she decides she likes him, especially after she sleeps with him and he stops calling her. Or maybe it’s not so remarkable: After all, the only other option the movie offers Amelia is ex-boyfriend Andrew (Denise’s Liev Schreiber), a ne’er-do-well and self-confessed video-porn addict who borrows money from her to pay his phone bill and then rushes off to have phone sex (Denise again) with a woman from California. Meanwhile, Amelia’s cat (formerly Laura’s cat, too) is dying, and Laura’s prenuptial jitters are magnifying all of Frank’s small annoying habits.
By the standards of talky Manhattan comedies, a lot of Walking is routine, from the shrink appointments (Amelia’s in therapy, Laura’s in training to be a therapist) to the drunken truth-telling session with Amelia and Andrew. Much of this has been done many times by Woody Allen or his imitators, if seldom from this point of view. The series of short scenes and punch line–dependent rhythm reveals Holofcener’s debt to skit comedy; like Allen, she aspires to more than yuks, but she doesn’t risk wandering so far away from the sitcom format that she gets lost.
Shot by Hal Hartley regular Michael Spiller, Walking builds to a lovely scene of Amelia and Laura together, and when the film concentrates on the two friends it’s charming. The film’s tone wavers, though, and its viewpoint is confused from the opening note of “She’s Got a New Spell,” one of several featured Billy Bragg songs. The singer/songwriter’s tortured-male-romantic musings seem an odd accompaniment for a female-bonding film that Holofcener has described as largely autobiographical, and which has no interesting male characters. (Frank, Bill, Andrew, and Peter—a flirtatious waiter who briefly catches Laura’s attention during a pre-wedding estrangement from Frank—aren’t merely charmless; they’re also dull.) When Bragg croons, “You know my love is stronger” as the two friends prepare for the wedding, he must be singing not about the bride and groom but about Laura and Amelia.
Since they usually prize breathtaking set pieces over continuity, Hong Kong action films tend to be erratic and even incoherent. Most of them, though, get going sooner than Supercop, a Jackie Chan vehicle that’s been refurbished for the North American market in the wake of the success of his Rumble in the Bronx. This Asia-trotting action comedy provides an exhilarating final sequence. The rest of the film, however, is enervating.
Chan’s Kevin is his traditional character, a Hong Kong police detective with the fighting skill of Bruce Lee and the comic timing of Buster Keaton. Sent to mainland China to infiltrate a drug gang, he meets with disapproval from uptight bureaucrats and his contact, a young woman who’s a supercop in her own right (Michelle Khan). Undercover in a Chinese prison, he helps a drug lord escape and is accepted into the gang; the gangsters don’t seem concerned that their new recruit doesn’t know his way around his supposed hometown (which he’s never seen before). The humor here is at the expense of the mainland rubes; when Kevin tries to fit in by ordering “roast cat with string beans,” others are inspired to try the same dish.
With his Chinese contact posing as his sister, Kevin and the gangsters make their way to Hong Kong, where a high-speed boat battle with the local coastal patrol ensues. Kevin meets the ruthless kingpin, whose wife is on trial in Malaysia, and the gang heads for Thailand for a heroin-dealer conclave that ends up with a string of jungle explosions worthy of Apocalypse Now. Then it’s on to Kuala Lumpur, to stage a brazen rescue of the gangster’s wife from the Malaysian authorities, who have just sentenced her to death.
In this last location, Stanley Tong’s direction and Edward Tang, Fibe Ma, and Lee Wai Yee’s scattershot script finally pay off, in large part because of the extravagant stunts executed by Chan and Khan. With Kevin’s girlfriend (Maggie Cheung) as a hostage, the drug lord arrives in a helicopter to supervise the assault on the police convoy carrying his wife. The subsequent action finds Chan hanging from the chopper, slamming into minarets and billboards as it swoops through downtown Kuala Lumpur, while Khan jumps a motorcycle onto a moving freight train. As the movie’s ad campaign notes, this stuff is for real: no blue screens or other Hollywood tricks for Chan and his fellow daredevils. Though not so slickly edited, the sequence blows away the chopper/train finale of Mission: Impossible precisely because Chan’s stunts clearly are possible, however far-fetched.
The scene’s other advantage is that it’s virtually free of dialogue. Dubbing is a nasty business, and the technicians who dubbed Supercop did so with little grace. The new opening credits have a frenetic MTV charm, but the added music—Devo, Black Grape, 2 Pac, and Tom Jones with Ruby remaking “Kung Fu Fighting” complete with a Chan reference—is mostly irksome. The Americanization of Jackie continues haphazardly, but what’s most striking about Supercop (and Chan) is universal.CP