A TIME TO KILL is John Grisham's first novel, but the fourth one
to be adapted for the screen. There have been two successful movies
from Grisham books, THE FIRM (1993) and THE CLIENT (1994), and one
turkey, THE PELICAN BRIEF (1993). In production now is THE CHAMBER.
A TIME TO KILL is my second favorite Grisham novel, the first
being THE FIRM, but A TIME TO KILL is definitely the most effective of
all the adaptations. When I originally read the book, I thought this
would make for an excellent move, and director Joel Schumacher
(COUSINS, THE CLIENT, and BATMAN FOREVER) did exactly that.
A TIME TO KILL has it all. The plot includes, but is not limited
to, racial tensions, the Ku Klux Klan, courtroom drama, corrupt
officials, corrupt preachers, rednecks, ACLU, NAACP, lawyers, police,
disbarred lawyers, psychiatrists, alcoholics, church goers,
southerners, Yankees, judges, ambitious DAs, romances, bombings, money
problems, etc. There is a little bit for everyone, but the best part
is the casting. Even the third and fourth string actors are excellent.
Take for example, all of the actors playing rednecks. Before they even
speak, you know you are looking at the genuine articles. More on the
A TIME TO KILL is about young and broke Mississippi lawyer Jake
Brigance (Matthew McConaughey who has a brief part in LONE STAR). One
day two rednecks rape Carl Lee Hailey's (Samuel L. Jackson from PULP
FICTION) daughter so he goes to where they are being arraigned and
kills them. He hires Jake to get him acquitted by reason of temporary
insanity. Doing this in the small southern town of Canton will be a
miracle since he is going against up and coming District Attorney Rufus
Buckley (Kevin Spacey from SEVEN). Rufus figures this case to be his
ticket to the governor's mansion. Judge Omar Noose (Patrick McGoohan)
is a good friend of Rufus to further complicate matters. Would you
want to try a capital case against a judge with that name?
Along the way Jake gets help from an alcoholic and disbarred
lawyer, Lucien Wilbanks (Donald Sutherland), an alcoholic divorce
lawyer, Harry Rex Vonner (Oliver Platt), an alcoholic psychiatrist (M.
Emmet Walsh), a scared secretary (Brenda Fricker), a frighten wife,
Carla (Ashley Judd), and a card carrying ACLU legal assistant, Ellen
Roark (Sandra Bullock from SPEED). Beside the DA, the judge, and the
disbelieving jury, Jake has a new local chapter of the KKK led by
Freddie Cobb (Kiefer Sutherland) with which to contend. He actually
gets a lot of help from the Canton police, especially Sheriff Ozzie
Walls (Charles Dutton from CRY THE BELOVED COUNTRY) and Deputy Looney
(Chris Cooper - the star of the great movie LONE STAR).
There is some much right with this movie, and yet I like Grisham's
books much better. Most of the movies are like the books, but if you
have already read them, it takes out a lot of the suspense. One of my
favorite genres is courtroom dramas, and A TIME TO KILL has a good one.
In fact two of the best scenes in the movie are Carl's coaching of Jake
for the summation and Jake's summation in court.
The best part of this movie are the actors. Spacey is great as a
slimy prosecutor. McGoohan is effect as a judge more interested in his
own image than justice. Dutton and Cooper are quite believable as a
couple of honest peace officers. Vonner is a good "Pillsbury Doughboy"
lawyer who doesn't really want to bother with the law, he'd rather
chase women and make money. Bullock is tough, cute, and smart all at
the same time. Jackson is wise, humble, and strong.
I know I am alone on this judgment, but with the exception of his
summation, I think McConaughey's performance is weak. He shows little
emotion and in a role that should be compelling, I did not care about
him at all. I did like the way the script by Akiva Goldsman handled
the romantic tension between Jake and Roark. The script has a good
ending and epilogue. If I could have made a single change to the
script, I would have lighten it up a bit with a little more natural
The movie does strain credibility. A few examples. Would lawyers
about to make opening or closing arguments in tough cases, really go
out and get drunk the night before? If Jake is so broke, how can he
afford a brand new $30,000+ SAAB convertible? The answer to both
questions, of course, is who cares. It never amazes me how often the
Klan shows up in movies set in the South. I'll give writers a hint.
The Klan is very rare these days and has been for a long time. Also,
they do have air-conditioning down there so no need to show all of
those sweating scenes.
A TIME TO KILL runs a little long at 2:29. I wish editor William
Steinkamp had been more liberal with the cutting knife. The film is
rated R for subject matter, violence, and some bad language. It is all
done tastefully. The show would be fine for any teenager. I recommend
the movie to you and give it ***.
Copyright © 1996 Steve Rhodes