“The Client” is a satisfactory, by-the-numbers child-in-jeopardy thriller that will fill the bill as a very commercial hot weather popcorn picture. Lackluster, if faultlessly professional, in terms of filmmaking and performance, this third adaptation of a John Grisham bestseller to hit the big screen within less than a year’s time typically has enough narrative meat on it to pull audiences in and keep them attentive. But unlike “The Firm” and “The Pelican Brief,” both of which had superstar casts to propel them past the $ 100 million domestic B.O. mark, this one will have to sail more on the author’s rep alone, spelling very strong but perhaps less than towering business.
While the tale sets up considerable peril for the protagonists and intrigue for the viewer, overriding problem here is the basic lack of suspense. With a child lead, sympathetic female cohort and a chief bad guy who looks like he just walked off a pirate ship, one can safely bet the house that nothing will happen to the heroes.
Opening sequence still stands, two hours later, as the best in the picture. Two little brothers, Mark and Ricky Sway (Brad Renfro and David Speck) witness a big, bearded man park his car in a secluded area, attach a hose to the exhaust pipe and stick it through the window. Unable to stand by passively, 11-year-old Mark detaches the hose, not once, but twice, upon which the man throws him in the car and insists that he die with him.
Mark manages to save himself, but not before hearing the man’s secrets, which involve the whereabouts of the missing body of a U.S. senator who was murdered by the Mob.
With young Ricky lapsed into a coma after watching the violent scene, scene shifts to a Memphis hospital, where the boys’ single mother (Mary-Louise Parker) frets over losing her job and Mark becomes the object of relentless attention on the part of the cops, the FBI, the press and, particularly, fierce federal prosecutor Roy Foltrigg (Tommy Lee Jones), who hopes to use the kid’s knowledge to further his own political ambitions.
But not if one Reggie Love can help it. Having watched enough TV shows to know that he should have a lawyer, Mark finds one in Ms. Love (Susan Sarandon), a woman who makes up for her limited experience with unflagging tenacity.
Warned by Mob henchmen that he’s dog meat if he spills the beans to anyone, Mark won’t even tell his attorney what he knows, much less the anxious Foltrigg, and the main mystery consists of how long it will take the kid to finally come across with the goods. The answer is, a long time.
Action finale has Mark and Reggie moving in on the senator’s hidden corpse at the same time the gangsters arrive, but even here the only jolt comes from the unexpected entrance of a raccoon.
Those deserving of just desserts get them offscreen in this relatively mild PG-13 concoction, and feel-good wrap-up manages to give everyone what they want.
Joel Schumacher’s directorial style is strictly presentational, devoted to getting the plot up on the screen in comprehensible fashion with no fuss, no frills, no thrills.
Each of the leads is outfitted with one or two significant biographical or motivational traits, and that’s seen as enough to give the audience what it needs to understand them.
Reggie has her determination to prove herself in the wake of a broken marriage and subsequent drug and booze addictions, Mark carries around his resentment toward his irresponsible father and resultant mistrust of all adults, and Foltrigg is driven by ambition.
Story’s sympathies are weighted in transparently audience-friendly directions , rooted in the predicaments of an endangered kid and a beleaguered woman fending for themselves against good old boy government types and the scummiest of villains.
Given the ambivalent treatment of the Foltrigg character, it is somewhat surprising, and disappointing, that he doesn’t become a more insidious force.
Performances are only OK, given the skin-deep characters. Sarandon is all earnest gumption and resilient dedication, while Jones, with virtually no character to play, executes an assortment of actorly riffs that at least make him entertaining. Young Renfro is similarly acceptable as the victimized Mark.
Technical contributions all contribute unimpeachably to the professional sheen of the entire enterprise.