No one takes the film of John Grisham's 1989 novel, his first and most personal, more seriously than Grisham. He withheld selling the film rights (for a very impressive $6 million) until he had a say in who would play Jake Brigance, the young Mississippi lawyer defending a black father, Carl Lee Hailey (Samuel L. Jackson), on trial for killing the two white men who raped his 10-year-old daughter. Grisham felt close to Jake since he, too, was a young Mississippi lawyer before quitting to write such best sellers-turned-movie blockbusters as The Pelican Brief and The Client.
Grisham rejected the usual star suspects (Brad Pitt, Val Kilmer, Woody Harrelson) but sparked when director Joel Schumacher brought him Matthew McConaughey, a Texas greenhorn best known as Drew Barrymore's cop loverman in Boys on the Side. Grisham was right to hold out. McConaughey, 26, is dynamite in a performance of smarts, sexiness, scrappy humor and unmistakable star sizzle.
Still, there should have been limits to pleasing Grisham. Schumacher and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman adroitly pared down The Client to its emotional core. In A Time to Kill, way long at 148 minutes, they cram in too much, including Grisham's polemics about racism, the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and the moral dilemma of the death penalty.
This distracts from the heart of the picture, which is in the bond between Carl Lee (the brilliant Jackson is quietly devastating) and Jake, a husband and father who knows he, too, would have shot anyone who raped his little girl. Jake's summation to the all-white jury, instructing the members to close their eyes and imagine their own child being brutalized, is a stirring climax. A female juror delivered the speech in the book, but, hey, this is Hollywood.
In fact, A Time to Kill is at its most compelling and entertaining when Schumacher lets it rip in the old potboiler tradition. He draws prime performances from a rich cast, notably Oscar-winner Kevin Spacey as a treacherous prosecutor, Brenda Fricker as Jake's cheeky secretary, Patrick McGoohan as a hanging judge named Noose, Charles Dutton as a football hero-turned-sheriff, M. Emmet Walsh as a boozy shrink and Donald Sutherland as a boozy, disbarred lawyer.
Kiefer Sutherland, Donald's son, doesn't fare as well as a stereotyped racist. Neither does the gifted Ashley Judd as Jake's sexy but strident wife ("They're burnin' crosses on our lawn!"). Oliver Platt, as Jake's cynical lawyer crony, is obvious but welcome comic relief. The oddest turn comes from adorable Sandra Bullock. She's top-billed in the film, yet she's saddled with a supporting role as a Boston law student, a babe genius who assists Jake with the case and pays a tall price for messing with Southern politics and Jake's marriage. Audiences expecting more Bullock or more weighty import from A Time to Kill will have to adjust expectations and settle for the kick of a good yarn.