Deliberate Intent” dramatizes a case in which the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that the publishers of a how-to-be-a-hitman book are responsible for a triple homicide — not the easiest of tasks. Yet, thanks to a sharp script by Andy Wolk and Lisa Mohan, Wolk’s strong direction and believable performances by Timothy Hutton, Ron Rifkin and James McDaniel, telepic is a highly watchable thriller and a worthy maiden voyage for FX’s original pics division.
Taking its cue from other successful crime-courtroom drama hybrids such as “Law and Order” and “Reversal of Fortune,” pic gives us a likable central character — attorney Rod Smolla (Hutton) — who anchors the piece with his heartfelt attempts at doing the right thing while trying to survive a divorce and a mid-life crisis.
When we are first introduced to Smolla (who also penned the book on which the pic is based), he is teaching the importance of defending the First Amendment to law students. He’s soon convinced by fellow legal eagle Howard Siegel (Ron Rifkin) to pursue a case against Paladin Press, a mail order publishing outfit that puts out “Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors.”
The legal team then proceeds to tie the book to the case of a Motown recording engineer (McDaniel) who gets a hitman to murder his ex-wife, their paraplegic daughter and the son’s nurse. By proving that the hired killer followed 22 of the 26 steps shown in Paladin’s book, they’re able to bring home the point that freedom of speech laws should not protect material that is produced for the purpose of aiding and abetting murder.
It could all have been very complicated and murky, but Wolk has a smart way of balancing the details of the brutal triple murder with the courtroom procedures. He also offers some quiet patches detailing Smolla’s family life and his friendship with colleague Laura Harmon, nicely played by Penny Johnson.
Among the production’s other assets are lenser Ron Garcia’s photography, which takes full advantage of Toronto’s gray hues, Drake Silliman’s stiletto-sharp editing and Thomas Wanker’s noirish score. They all service a well-told story that probes the limits of freedom of speech with finesse.