NEW YORK — JUST when it appeared the entire summer would be a parade of mad bombers and evil terrorists bent on blowing away the last remaining traces of Hollywood civility, along comes a warm-weather thriller with a reasonable degree of respect for its characters, its subject, and the intelligence of its audience.
That's not to say ``The Client'' is a thinking person's movie, or that its straight-out suspense scenes work as well as its more humanly scaled episodes. Just the opposite, in fact, since the moments that work hardest to put you on the edge of your seat are the ones most likely to set your mind wandering.
Generally speaking, though, ``The Client'' is the most cleverly conceived and skillfully made melodrama to emerge from a major studio in months. All of which comes as quite a surprise to me, since I was dreading the combination of filmmaker Joel Schumacher -
whose ``Falling Down'' and ``Dying Young'' set new lows in pop-culture pretension - and the repetition of John Grisham's big, boring bestseller. The awfulness of the last movie based on a Grisham novel, ``The Pelican Brief,'' didn't reassure me, either.
The screenplay of ``The Client,'' by Akiva Goldsman and Robert Getchell, closely follows Grisham's plot. It focuses on young Mark Sway, a bright 11-year-old who stumbles on an adventure he never wanted - becoming sole witness to the drunken confession and bloody suicide of a mob lawyer, who knows where the body of a murdered senator is buried.
Fearing the exposure of their deadly secret, the mob would like to rub Mark out, or at least terrorize him into permanent silence. The police should be his friends under these circumstances, but Mark is far from certain they'd protect him from the retribution that would surely come if he cooperated. His only confidante is a lawyer he finds almost by accident, and while she's full of good intentions, she's far less experienced than the hard-boiled cops and unscrupulous crooks relentlessly dogging her client's trail.
What brings ``The Client'' more alive on the wide screen than on the printed page is a combination of well-chosen ingredients, starting with first-rate acting by two seasoned pros and one delightful newcomer.
The finest of the pros is Tommy Lee Jones, who seems to be everywhere this summer - he almost brings off a carelessly written role in the violent ``Blown Away,'' and next month he'll arrive in ``Natural Born Killers,'' where he plays a prison warden with an over-the-top energy that would be comfortably at home in a Three Stooges movie. His portrayal of a self-centered prosecutor in ``The Client'' ranks with his snappiest work in ages, perfectly timed and generously spiced with satirical humor.
SUSAN SARANDON gives a smart and energetic performance as Reggie, the lawyer with a troubled past and a challenging present. First-time actor Brad Renfro makes a sensational debut as her unusual young client. The supporting cast is exceptionally solid, with a long list of respected talents including Mary-Louise Parker as Mark's hard-pressed mother, J.T. Walsh as an ambitious cop, Anthony Edwards as Reggie's solicitous assistant, the magnetic Will Patton as a sly police officer, and the great Ossie Davis as a judge with limited patience for scoundrels.
Another key contributor to the film's success is Tony Pierce-Roberts, who did the extraordinarily good-looking camera work. The movie doesn't have a naturalistic appearance to mirror the novel's plodding realism; instead, it takes off in visual directions of its own, filling the screen with unexpected colors and patterns. Pierce-Roberts's credits include some of James Ivory's most eye-dazzling pictures, such as ``Howards End'' and ``A Room With a View,'' both of which earned Oscar nominations for the cinematographer. Praise also goes to Robert Brown for editing Pierce-Roberts's shots with expressive precision.
Finally, even a non-Schumacher fan like me has to acknowledge his directorial competence in pulling together the movie's performances, cinematography, and editing so they work together in smooth, enjoyable harmony. It turns out that the auteur of ``Flatliners'' and ``The Lost Boys'' has a good movie in him after all - and here's hoping it's the first of many.
* ``The Client'' has a PG-13 rating. It contains violence, vulgar language, and discussion of domestic abuse.