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Laramie Movie Scope:
A Time to Kill

Old fashioned vigilante justice

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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July 29, 1996 -- The latest John Grisham novel to be made into film is his first novel "A Time to Kill." Some Grisham fans say it is his best. I wouldn't know. All I know is that since the film is supposedly set in the present day it makes the story anachronistic.

The story is about a black man, Carl Lee Hailey (Samuel L. Jackson), who kills two white men who raped and nearly killed his 10-year-old daughter and the lawyer, Jake Brigance (Matthew McConaughey) who agrees to defend him.

Brigance sticks with the case, even after the KKK tries to kill him because he feels he could have prevented the crime. Hailey, a cagey fellow, came to Brigance to arrange his defense before he committed the crime!

McConaughey, a Brigance, shows little polish as an actor, but has oceans of charisma. He reminded me of a young Marlon Brando in the 1966 film "The Chase," except that he exhibits nowhere near the acting talent of Brando. But the camera likes him, and that will get you a long way in Hollywood.

The story seems less like a modern story and more like one that might have taken place 20 or 30 years ago. You get all the standard white southern stereotypes. There are street demonstrations and cross-burnings, just like in the 60's. Nowadays, they don't burn crosses or demonstrate, they just burn the whole church.

Having mentioned McConnaughey, I shouldn't leave out Sandra Bullock, who actually stumbles over her lines (that should have been edited out) and appears miscast as a bright, idealistic young college law student.

To give you an idea of just how sloppy this film is, there's a scene where a Klansman is burning. He's rolling around on the ground during a riot. Just before the cut to the next scene, somebody rushes in with a fire extinguisher to put out the stunt man's flames. The fire extinguisher part was obviously supposed to have been cut out of the film. I can't believe the filmmakers were so sloppy.

It doesn't help the credibility of the film when the viewer sees these kinds of things because the film is already asking the viewer to suspend his disbelief by, oh, several miles.

We're supposed to believe, for instance, that Judge Noose (I'm not making this up. We've got a British actor, Patrick McGoohan playing Mississippi judge named Noose) suddenly starts letting Brigance get away with all kinds of courtroom shenanigans after being very hostile towards him at first. We're supposed to believe that Noose will allow Brigance to argue facts not in evidence during his summation?

I'm sorry, I just can't buy it. I can't buy vigilante justice without a better argument than the one given in the movie. I don't believe a jury would buy it either. This may be a case where you have to read the book to appreciate the film, but if that's true, the film hasn't done its job.

Normally, I wouldn't be so picky, but most Hollywood films don't pretend to deal with serious issues. This one does pretend, so I'm judging it accordingly.

It is too bad this film isn't better than it is. There's some good acting talent in it, including Academy Award winner Kevin Spacey, as prosecutor Rufus Buckley, and Jackson, who gives a fine performance, as does Oliver Platt ("Flatliners"). It's not a bad film, it just fails to lift itself above the level of average. This film rates a C. Actually, if you are willing to totally suspend your disbelief, it might get as high as a B, maybe.

Click here for links to places to buy this movie in video and/or DVD format, the soundtrack, books, even used videos, games and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 1996 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)