You would think that legal thrillers would have plenty of interesting, juicy cases to deliver, but it does not appear to be all that easier for writers – let alone filmmakers – to be original in this particular sub-genre. Amidst the best titles, both written and filmed, we have had – of late – such titles as Presumed Innocent, Primal Fear and, The Firm (the second time Cruise had headlined a quality legal thriller after A Few Good Men). Whilst it was not Grisham’s first book in this sub-genre (that was the excellent A Time to Kill), it was the book which catapulted him into the limelight, and thus the one to first be adapted – and successfully at that, so pretty-soon we had movie versions of almost every hit in his collection: The Pelican Brief, The Client, The Rainmaker, The Chamber and The Runaway Jury. The trouble was that it wasn’t long before the stories all became a little bit too formulaic; the characters all fairly interchangeable; the same concept of underdog battling the odds against a big firm running through many of them. Ironically, to this day, the only story that I rank even close to being as good as Grisham’s The Firm, was his previous, debut novel, A Time to Kill, which was a very different kettle of fish indeed.
Having saturated both the book and film market, this particular, previously undernourished, sub-genre now burgeoning with half a dozen of his film adaptations alone, audiences were getting bored with the formula. The cow was well and truly milked. Then Michael Clayton came along, the Award Winning original movie (i.e. not adapted from a book) starring an Oscar Nominated George Clooney, and shook things up completely. Suddenly we no longer needed formulaic Hollywood heroes fighting for the case of their lives; suddenly it was dark political machinations and anti-heroes who show a glimmer of hope that proved more interesting. But even if Grisham’s film adaptations are currently dead in the water (for the time being, only, since even his original The Firm is now being made into a promising TV series starring Josh Lucas – who is actually in tonight’s feature too!), there are other legal thriller writers out there who have found a good formula, one of them being a certain Michael Connelly, the man behind The Lincoln Lawyer. A massive bestseller, if any legal thriller had a hope of being adapted, it was this one, and, 6 years after it was published, we now see the fruits of this particular project. But does it match the book in terms of thrills, substance and entertainment? And does it follow in the dark, intelligent, and distinctly adult path laid out by Michael Clayton, or is it just the start of another enjoyable but formulaic run?
The story introduces us to the charismatic character of Mickey Haller, criminal defence attorney. Self-assured and street-smart, but with no commercial space to work in, he largely operates out of his Lincoln town car – hence the title – being driven around LA taking calls and conducting business from the back seat. He is reasonably well known and successful, his clients ranging from his very own chauffeur (who is paying off the fees by driving Mickey around) to a group of Hell’s Angels-esque bikers, who are regular customers. But his latest case is a little more tricky – a high profile assault where the victim was savagely beaten and almost raped. The defence? It was a set-up in order to scam the client – a rich Beverly Hills playboy. And Haller’s client is indeed quite exceptional – not only can he actually pay his legal fees, he might very well be innocent! But why does Haller – a lawyer who always finds an angle, leaves no stone unturned, and uses legal process to maximum benefit – find himself stretched further and further to the limit in order to secure a not guilty verdict at any costs? Does the accused have bigger secrets to hide?
The Lincoln Lawyer is not the first movie to be adapted from a Michael Connelly book – Blood Work, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, was done a few years back; it was a solid enough film, with some interesting ideas, but, ultimately, not a whole lot new to say – and a bit of a Box Office bomb as a result. Still, with Connelly’s success as an author – perhaps The Lincoln Lawyer standing out above all the rest – it was not a surprise that he got a second chance to play in the Hollywood big league. And they definitely managed to mix a much more stylish, enjoyable cocktail this time around – marrying an eclectic, charming cast, with a fast-paced plot complete with all the requisite twists and turns to keep you involved. Is it groundbreaking material? Far from it. Is it very enjoyable and highly entertaining? Without a doubt.
The story is, of course, nothing new. It starts off in a very A Few Good Men-style, with the lead character introduced as a man accustomed to making deals, charming his way through plea-bargains and negotiations to get the best outcome for his almost-always-guilty clients. Hell, he’s even got the requisite gorgeous-ex-wife-who-is-still-in-love-with-him-but-can’t-stand-his-job-and-herself-works-for-the-other-side. Then he gets the big case (again, still following A Few Good Men) where he could actually be in trouble – after all, he may well be defending somebody innocent, so the stakes are much higher. Throw in some Jagged Edge/Primal Fear-style twists, where his client may indeed have some secrets to hide, and what you get is a very familiar package indeed, with all the requisite sub-genre tropes; painting by the numbers in this particular category. Still, formula worked wonders for Perry Mason – back in the day – so why bother changing things up too much? In fact, The Lincoln Lawyer never attempts to offer much in the way of original substance, it merely tries to do what’s been done before in a fresh, highly polished, stylish and effortlessly cool way. And, on that level, it certainly succeeds.
Matthew McConaughey feels like he has been teetering on the brink of all-out success for far too long, never quite breaking through into Hollywood A-list status, despite having the looks, and having the talent (as proven by a select few films from his career history) to arguably warrant a place. I think the trouble is that he’s spent too long getting away on just taking his shirt off and charming his way through shallow flicks on looks alone – a whole string of lacklustre romcoms support this theory, as well as a truly awful actioner, Sahara, which squandered the potential of the source book series being turned into a franchise. In fact, some of his best work has been in generally more low-key, smaller-budget productions where, occasionally, he’s even found success at playing against type – Lone Star, U-571, Reign of Fire, Frailty and We Are Marshall. But you have to know that there is something going wrong in your career when the biggest budget productions that you are involved in are all romantic comedies.
The Lincoln Lawyer represents his career coming full-circle, in some ways, since his big break was starring in the adaptation of the John Grisham novel A Time To Kill, a film which also saw him take on the part of a lawyer, fighting against the odds to save his client’s life, all the while having to keep his friends, colleagues and his family safe from the outside forces conspiring to harm them and, in turn, derail the case. I thought McConaughey was great in A Time To Kill, really sinking his teeth into the role, and I’ve no idea what really happened to him during the intervening fifteen years – but it’s certainly nice to see him back where he seems to belong: fighting for justice with the kind of spirit and gusto required for this kind of role, whilst also bringing all the required charisma and presence to bear, as any good lawyer needs – at least on the Big Screen. He’s very much the heart and soul of The Lincoln Lawyer, and, to a certain extent, he carries the whole production almost single-handedly. At the end of the day, there may be plenty of colourful supporting actors to assist him, but this is clearly his baby, and he’s the biggest reason to watch this movie, and the biggest reason for its ultimate success.
We can’t fully ignore the weight of the supporting talent however, I merely downplay them because few are used to their fullest potential – many little more than glorified cameos in clichéd roles where they are distinctly typecast. Marisa Tomei, who is having something of a resurgence of late (in no small part thanks to her well-deserved Nomination for The Wrestler), tries to make the most of her ‘love interest’ role; William H. Macy is utterly wasted as the P.I. sidekick; Josh Lucas is on restrained form as the bland opposing prosecution attorney; John Leguizamo plays the weasel that he always plays; and even Ryan Phillippe, who really looked like the next big indie thing back in the day (the underrated The Way of the Gun is an excellent modern-day western), appears to have succumbed to subtle but still evident plastic surgery – the side-effect being it appears to have removed most all of his acting ability. And with his integral role, as ‘the accused’, he appears to be one of the movie’s weakest links. In fact, aside from McConaughey and Tomei, only Crash’s Michael Pena seems to survive intact – actually playing a small but nonetheless reasonably effective dual role as one of the lead character’s old clients.
At the end of the day, any real worth in this production really will boil down to whether or not you like McConaughey in the lead role – and thankfully he is just the right side of charismatic, and avoids the blisteringly irritating arrogance that dominates some of his latter-day acting roles. You actually do start to care for the plight of his character; and wonder whether or not he is going to get out of the mess that he is in – and, indeed, how he can possibly accomplish it. Perhaps the plot’s biggest unpredictable element comes from this latter conundrum – all of the other twists and turns that are sent your way will largely merely evoke a ‘seen that done before’ feeling in you.
Fans of the original source book will be pleased to know that the novel is followed quite closely in the main – of course, as much as you can follow a fairly hefty written work in a 2 hour runtime – and they keep a pretty fast pace going in order to get as much in, often running the risk of losing audience members along the way: not through complexity, but through sheer pace. There are still plenty of tweaks made, as you would only expect, and most of these will be accepted by the majority – the only ones frustrating to me were the whole ‘driving around in a Lincoln thing’, which was given a better justification in the novel; as well as the fact that they don’t get across the legal conundrum Haller was in. Sure, his family and friends were being threatened, but he also does not want to be disbarred – so he is heavily restricted by attorney-client privilege – a point which was hammered home in the book much more successfully, and which was a more obvious plot point in both the book and film adaptation of The Firm, and thus worked better as a result. Oh, and the ‘shocking’ death-of-a-close-colleague midway through? The character just hadn’t been built up enough for it to work as well as it did in the book. Still, it appears even Connelly himself is content with the end result, so who are we to complain? (although the cheque burning a hole in his pocket probably helped no end)
So, whilst The Lincoln Lawyer is undoubtedly a very enjoyable legal thriller, which is one of the better examples of its formulaic kind, it is nevertheless a far cry from being a substantial, exceptional example of what you can do within the sub-genre. It is probably one of the best ‘formula-driven’ legal thrillers since Grisham’s early adaptations – The Firm and A Time to Kill – and deserves acclaim for that; but it is still not even close to Michael Clayton in terms of intelligence and true substance. However, there is still a time and a place for entertaining, largely derivative thrills – and The Lincoln Lawyer knows how to deliver them in abundance, driven by a charismatic lead performance and anchored by decent enough source material. For failing to break the mould, it will never reach the heights of Clayton, but it deserves kudos nonetheless for delivering a stylish, winning effort even within the confines of the sub-genre mould and its restrictive formula. Definitely worth checking out.
NB. Spoilers ahead. For those who have read the book(s), you will recall that Mickey Haller is a recurring lead character across several of them. Unlike Tony Scott’s excellent Denzel Washington-starring adaptation of Man on Fire (the first of several A.J. Quinnell novels featuring the same recurring lead character, Creasy), where he effectively put an end to any further adaptations; the director of The Lincoln Lawyer, relative newcomer Brad Furman, has stuck to the novel (and audience expectations) here, thus leaving the ending ripe for a potential franchise. Personally, this is where things could get interesting – just like I’m interested in the upcoming TV series spin-off to The Firm, which picks up 10 years after the events in that movie – I would be much more interested in the further exploits of Mickey Haller, than in having yet another, new character introduced, who has to then suffer the same clichéd sub-genre restrictions. That said, the successful adaptation of one thriller with a recurring lead character hasn’t always meant that further adaptations would go well (Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan character still hasn’t hit his stride, and James Patterson’s superb detective Alex Cross was somewhat wasted by the increasingly average Morgan Freeman – and out-of-order adaptations Kiss the Girls and Along Came a Spider). Still, given the success of this film adaptation of The Lincoln Lawyer – and its status as one of the best movies that McConaughey has done in years – I can’t see any reason why the Studios wouldn’t give further instalments a shot at the Big Screen. Watch this space.
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