The title is certainly a misnomer. This crackling thriller will have a long, prosperous box office flight and promises quite literally to give the first John Grisham film adaptation, “The Firm,” a run for its money. With perfect casting and stellar work by writer-producer-director Alan J. Pakula that eliminates most of the novel’s flaws, “The Pelican Brief” should fill Warner Bros. with holiday cheer straight through to St. Patrick’s Day.
Tilling some of the same conspiracy turf he explored in “All the President’s Men,” Pakula has improved on Grisham’s book by excising much of the detritus, crafting a taut, intelligent thriller that succeeds on almost every level. Playing a part written with her in mind, Julia Roberts is sensational as law student-on-the-run Darby Shaw, and Denzel Washington proves her equal in a laudable example of color-blind casting.
As those who watched the more than 2 1/2 hours of “The Firm” discovered, adapting Grisham is no picnic. He writes cinematically, despite his brilliant setups the author tends to meander in the second half of his books and get caught up in tech gobbledygook that isn’t action-packed enough to sustain the typical thriller audience.
That compels the filmmakers to rectify those shortcomings, and Pakula has managed to do so even more effectively — with nearly every deviation necessary and on target, all the while remaining quite true to the book.
The story opens with two Supreme Court justices murdered on the same night by a contract killer named Khamel (Stanley Tucci). Engrossed by the bizarre events, 24-year-old Tulane law student Darby researches and drafts a brief detailing an obscure case eventually destined for the court docket that could provide inspiration for the dual murders.
Darby’s professor boyfriend, Thomas Callahan (Sam Shepard, in a solid cameo), passes the brief along to a friend at the FBI (John Heard). When Thomas’ car explodes, the game of cats-and-mouse is on — with both the government and perpetrators pursuing Darby, even as the president (Robert Culp) and his chief of staff (Tony Goldwyn) fret that the conspiracy could implicate the White House.
Seeking to save herself by shining a light on the shadowy doings, Darby contacts newspaper reporter Gray Grantham (Washington), who’s already chasing the story through an anonymous source.
Pakula does a remarkable job in weaving and making sense of these complex strands. Although there’splenty of suspense as Darby and Gray evade her pursuers , the director eschews the cheaper tricks of the trade, respecting the audience’s ability to keep track of what’s going on. Also, “Brief” is a relatively gore-free thriller, with most of the violence effectively conveyed offscreen.
With all the descriptions of a long-legged, red-haired beauty in the book, it’s not hard to figure out who Grisham had in mind, and Roberts is simply terrific, expressing Darby’s initial bewilderment, followed by resourcefulness and steely resolve.
Washington also impresses as Gray, whose personality remained vague in the novel, allowing the actor to put his own stamp on the part. With his concurrent role in “Philadelphia,” Washington’s stock should be so high by January that the best advice would be to buy now.
Casting in supporting roles is equally meticulous, with top-notch performances all around — even in such limited exposure as that afforded Shepard and Heard. Culp is dead-on as the president (an apparent cross between Gerald Ford and George Bush), and Goldwyn wonderfully smarmy as his cool chief of staff, while Tucci projects considerable yet restrained menace as the assassin.
Tech credits are also impeccable, from James Horner’s evocative, understated score to Philip Rosenberg’s sumptuous production design, ranging from the White House to stark corporate law offices to New Orleans’ Bourbon Street. Washington is attired a bit more nattily than most reporters one encounters, but to point that out is picking nits — about the only sort of flaw one can find in this “Brief.”