``Legal Eagles'' is a trite title, but behind it lies a reasonably bright and original movie -- with enough good-natured star performances to make up for glitches in the screenplay, which never quite decides if it's more interested in laughs, chills, or romance. The story begins with a long and dramatic flashback, tossed casually at us while the opening credits are still rolling -- an unusual and self-confident move by Ivan Reitman, who produced and directed the picture.
This episode introduces only one of the main characters, and she's just a little girl at the time.
But its glimpses of murder and arson let us know that Reitman takes the second half of the ``comedy-drama'' label as seriously as the first.
Things lighten up when we meet the ``eagles'' of the title: a pair of lawyers on opposite sides of the courtroom. She, played by Debra Winger, is a defense attorney who'll pitch any story she can dream up -- with a straight face, too -- if it might get a client off the hook. He, played by Robert Redford, is an assistant DA whose good record (and good looks) make it probable he'll move up to his boss's job soon.
What brings these two into an unlikely partnership is Main Character No. 3, a weirdo played by Daryl Hannah with an unsettling mixture of naivet'e, eccentricity, and glamour.
She's the same character we saw as a little girl in the opening flashback, when she barely escaped from a fire that killed her father -- a distinguished artist -- and destroyed his life's work, a batch of celebrated paintings.
Now a grown woman, she is obsessed with memories of her past, and with a painting her father gave her just before his death. An attempt to steal this canvas brings her into the courtroom, and into the lives of the legal eagles -- who find her case so riddled with mysteries and inconsistencies that they can't figure out who (if anyone) is guilty of what.
All this makes for an entertaining yarn with a fair share of surprises.
But it's too bad the film doesn't do a better job of blending its comic and dramatic angles. The first minutes, showing the deliberately set fire and the narrow escape, are tense and violent.
Then without an ounce of transition, we're plopped into the middle of a hilarious trial scene, with Winger spouting an insanely tall tale to a jury, while Redford listens in amazement.
The rest of the movie follows suit, lurching abruptly between comedy (sometimes close to slapstick) and dark deeds by ruthless criminals.
Blame for this bumpiness falls partly to writers Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr. and partly to the director who interpreted their screenplay.
Reitman likes to mix moods and genres, as he did in ``Ghostbusters,'' which became a superhit, by serving up two movies in one -- a fantasy and a farce, carefully woven into a seamless experience. By contrast, the seams of ``Legal Eagles'' stand out like mountain ranges.
Returning to the not-guilty side of the case, though, ``Legal Eagles'' boasts a number of neat performances. At first I was most impressed with Winger for having the courage to do a plain-Jane act, complete with minimal makeup and sensible suits, right next to Hannah's voluptuous posing.
But as the movie went on, I was equally impressed with Hannah's determination to bring out every speck of weirdness and goofiness lying beneath the surface of her deceptively gorgeous character. Redford, meanwhile, does some of his most mature screen work -- poking fun at his own handsome persona in a gently self-mocking performance that (as a bonus) slides cleverly around his weaknesses as an actor.
The supporting cast includes many seasoned professionals, from Terence Stamp and the ubiquitous Brian Dennehy to Steven Hill (so superb in ``On Valentine's Day'' recently) and Roscoe Lee Browne, with help from John McMartin and even a memorable one-liner by stage actor Everett Quinton.
The gifted Laszlo Kovacs did the cinematography, and trusty Elmer Bernstein composed the score.
The picture's rating is PG, reflecting some mild vulgarity and violence around the edges of the tale.