In the unsettling opening minutes of The Client, the latest nuts-and-bolts thriller from the John Grisham toolbox, Mark Sway (Brad Renfro), an 11-year-old with the sloe-eyed gleam of a contemporary Tom Sawyer, takes his little brother (David Speck) out for a smoke in the Tennessee backwoods. There the boys spy a burly, bearded man trying to kill himself with auto exhaust. Mark sneaks up and removes the lethal hose — only to get yanked into the car, where he hears a confession: The man, a Mob lawyer, tells him where the body of a murdered politician is buried. Minutes later, the man blows his own brains out.
Putting a child in peril is a bare-bones suspense tactic, but then nobody ever claimed the novels of John Grisham hinged on their originality. After that grabber of a sequence, Mark reports the suicide (without saying he was in the car), and before long everyone wants to know what he knows. The police, the FBI, the U.S. attorney (Tommy Lee Jones) — all suspect that the kid is withholding crucial information. Mark, though, isn’t about to reveal anything just because a bunch of gray-suited investigators are pestering him. No, sir. Instead, he saunters into the office of Reggie Love (Susan Sarandon), a feisty, if inexperienced, attorney who’s only too happy to take on the old-boy law-enforcement establishment. She and Mark have much in common. Mark, who lives in a grimy trailer home with his brother and indigent young mother (Mary-Louise Parker), was beaten by his alcoholic dad; Reggie, a reformed substance abuser herself, lost custody of her own kids through divorce. She becomes Mark’s protector, confidante, and surrogate mom. And, yes, his lawyer.
On the scale of Grisham movie adaptations, I’d rate The Client like this: Not as logy as The Pelican Brief, but lacking the zap, crackle, and pop of The Firm. The movie keeps you occupied, but in a processed, unexciting way. In the early scenes, director Joel Schumacher (Falling Down) succeeds in plunging Mark into a nightmare of tensile paranoia. Will Patton is particularly good as a leering cop who seems to be inside Mark’s head. The action flows by in a busy, leaping style, with grim-looking agents crowding the frame. Yet once you peer past the restless camera work, the plot is fairly thin: Mark has information that could finger some very bad men, and he won’t give it up. At heart, there’s something soft and fuzzy about The Client. It’s Grisham with feeling-not exactly his strong suit. We’re cued to chuckle at the way that Reggie thwarts the cops’ macho interrogation techniques. In truth, though, I never really saw the justification for Mark’s not spilling the beans. (In effect, he’s aiding the Mafia.) He doesn’t tell because otherwise there wouldn’t be a movie.
The best thrillers are about heroes taking a reckless plunge into danger. The Client, with its ”maternalized” narrative, creates the opposite effect: Mark seeks not danger but a retreat into safety, which he finds through his rapport with Reggie. This isn’t the stuff of knife-edged suspense. If we identified more with Mark’s vulnerability — his anxiety that revealing the information could get his family killed — the movie might have generated more heat. But Brad Renfro is almost too cocky a performer; he’s not just brave, he’s Superkid. Nevertheless, he holds the screen, and the adult pros in the cast bring the movie some guts and style. Sarandon, stuck in the rather earnest role of a noble survivor, lends Reggie’s motherly instincts an emotional core without letting the role get too gooey. And Jones, flicking his death’s-head smile on and off as if with a light switch, does grace-note riffs on his I’m-a-bully-for-justice Fugitive persona. A thriller like The Client doesn’t need acting any better than this. What it could have used is a bit of surprise. B-