I am banking on public appetite for the familiar. The summer of 2013 has been a historically bad season for movie studios, as one blockbuster after another (Pacific Rim, anyone?) has bombed at the box office. One exception, however, is sequels — three of the top-ten grossing films of 2013 have a numeral at the end of their title. And so, quick to jump on any bandwagon that happens by, I (somewhat) proudly present Tale of the Tape III: Films of A Lesser Law. On my cutting room floor this time around: A Civil Action, The Devil’s Advocate and A Time To Kill.

LEAD ACTOR

A Civil Action: John Travolta

The Devil’s Advocate: Keanu Reeves

A Time To Kill:
Matthew
McConaughey

I loved Travolta in Pulp Fiction and McConaughey will always hold a special place in my heart for his memorable turn as Wooderson in Dazed and Confused (“Hey, easy on the leather!”). Nonetheless, this is no battle of Oscar candidates. I give Travolta the slight edge only because his leering grin and oily mannerisms capture a little of the blithely naïve narcissism of hotshot personal injury lawyer Jan Schlictmann (as described in Jonathan Harr’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, he’s more nerd on the rise than sharkskin suit). But, having suffered through Battlefield Earth, I simply cannot bear to give Travolta a full point for anything.

I would be remiss if I didn’t say a word here about Keanu Reeves. Reviews of his work tend to fall into two, diametrically-opposed camps: (a) he’s absolute rubbish; or (b) his acting exudes a sort of perfect, Zen-like vacuity (a compliment, mind you). Personally, having watched his dead-fish eyes never spark for two hours while Al Pacino chews the scenery and Charlize Theron waxes hysterical, I think it’s both (a) and (b). And God help the audience.

A Civil Action: 1/2

The Devil’s Advocate: 0

A Time To Kill: 0

SUPPORTING CAST

A Civil Action: Robert Duvall,
William H. Macy, John Lithgow, James Gandolfini

The Devil’s Advocate: Al Pacino,
Charlize Theron, Craig T. Nelson

A Time To Kill: Samuel J. Jackson,
Sandra Bullock, Kevin Spacey, Kiefer Sutherland, Charles S. Dutton,
Donald Sutherland, Oliver Platt

A quality versus quantity battle between A Civil Action and A Time To Kill. Duvall gives a stellar performance defense attorney Jerome Facher (although, in the book, Facher is less of a soft-spoken eccentric and more of a terrifying bulldog, as befits a Hale & Dorr litigator); Macy plays his woebegone looks and Sad Sack persona to the hilt as the office manager of the plaintiff’s firm; and Gandolfini, in one of his last pre-Sopranos roles, exudes quiet strength as a tannery worker who spills the beans on illegal toxic waste dumping. But the edge goes to A Time To Kill, which features a bevy of 1990’s acting stalwarts making the most out of John Grisham’s slightly pulpy tale of Southern courtroom drama and racial justice. Spacey is all terrifyingly steely affect as D.A.. Rufus Buckley and Jackson brings fire and dignity to the role of father turned revenge-killer Carl Lee Hailey. Even the smaller parts sizzle — Dutton, in particular, does a noteworthy job as Sheriff Ozzie Walls

A Civil Action: 1/2

The Devil’s Advocate: 0

A Time To Kill: 1

MOST MEMORABLE LINE

A Civil Action: “Now the single greatest liability a lawyer can have is pride. Pride. Pride has lost more cases than lousy evidence, idiot witnesses and a hanging judge all put together. There is absolutely no place in a courtroom for pride.” (Robert Duvall)

The Devil’s Advocate: “Lose? I don’t lose! I win! I win! I’m a lawyer! That’s my job, that’s what I do!” (Keanu Reeves)

A Time To Kill: “You wanted this case, well you’ve got it. It isn’t easy saving the world even one case at a time, but you stick with it. You just might have a knack for it. Don’t do what I did. Don’t quit.” (Donald Sutherland)

A three-way tie. For all that these movies distort the legal process and ratchet up courtroom theatrics (A Civil Action less so than the other two), they all delicately explore the occasional disconnect between a lawyer’s role in seeking justice and lawyers’ views of that role.

A Civil Action: 1 ½

The Devil’s Advocate: 1

A Time To Kill: 2

ROMANTIC INTEREST

A Civil Action: None (unless you count John Travolta’s infinite love for himself)

The Devil’s Advocate: Charlize Theron (the wife) vs. Connie Nielsen (unfortunately, the sister)

A Time To Kill: Ashley Judd (with a spicy side of southern-fried Bullock)

No contest. A Time To Kill stars two of the biggest female romantic leads of the 1990’s, while The Devil’s Advocate sinks into so much B-movie tawdriness that you’ll want to steam clean your eyeballs.

A Civil Action: 1 ½

The Devil’s Advocate: 1

A Time To Kill: 3

FINAL TALLY

A Civil Action: 1 ½

The Devil’s Advocate: 1

A Time To Kill: 3

There you have it, folks; the numbers
never lie.
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