You gotta hand it to John Grisham: Nobody has the various lawyer cliches down pat as well as him - in fact, it almost seems as if he invented or at least, reinvented many of them. As in most of his thrillers, we get a whole handful in "The Client": the slimy mafia lawyer, the power-hungry politician-to-be, the self-aggrandizing ambulance-chaser, the grandfatherly judge and, of course, the motherly family law practitioner who turned to legal practice after overcoming a few troubles of her own. I think that leaves only the greedy corporate attorney, his cousin the corrupt judge and their perpetual antagonists, the starving public interest lawyer and the inquisitive student prodigy unrepresented here; but still, not a bad collection for a single thriller, even by Grisham. (And that doesn't even include the count of dumb and/or malicious cops, slick tabloid journalists and ruthless mobsters running around in this story.) But never mind: "The Client" is one of John Grisham's best-ever novels, and this movie surpasses many another big-screen adaptation of his books by several leagues. For Grisham at the top of his game is also an excellent storyteller, and in the hands of director Joel Schumacher his tale of beleaguered eleven-year-old Mark Sway who gets in trouble by becoming the reluctant last confidant of suicidal defense attorney Jerome "Romey" Clifford comes to life in spot-on and truly gripping fashion.
Although not even a teenager yet, Mark (Brad Renfro) is as tough as they come - a Memphis trailer park kid who gets most of his education on life's really important aspects from TV, has already helped his mom (Mary-Louise Parker) get rid of the wife-beating guy he now calls his "ex-father," and since then has been the man in the house, taking care of his eight-year-old brother Ricky whenever their mother is at work (i.e., most of the time). So Mark doesn't scare easily; and even if he really is afraid, he'd rather drop dead than admit it. But with both the mob *and* the feds on his trail - the former out to kill him before he can share the dirty little secret they suspect Romey has spilled before blowing out his brains, the latter hell-bent on making him share that very secret - even Mark has to face the fact that he is in way over his head ... and yes, he's scared, too; and not just a little. Worse, his brother is out cold, in hospital being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder because watching Romey's suicide was more than his delicate eight-year-old soul could take, and their mother is in hospital with Ricky on the doctor's orders because Ricky might need her when he wakes up. (Consequently she's also out of a job, because her sweat-shop employer doesn't take kindly to this sort of family emergency). Reluctantly, Mark therefore concludes that he needs an attorney. And in short order, he lands on the doorstep of Regina "Reggie" Love (Susan Sarandon), middle-aged but only a few years out of law school, through which she put herself after her husband left her for a younger woman, not without depriving her of their children's custody and branding her an unfit mother. But what starts as a hesitant relationship at best on Mark's side soon turns out his one stroke of luck, because Reggie is probably the only lawyer in town not afraid to take on even powerful U.S. Attorney "Reverend" Roy Foltrigg (Tommy Lee Jones) and the FBI, and ultimately willing to put her own job at risk for her client.
While condensing some of its elements, the movie's screenplay follows Grisham's novel fairly closely, taking part of its dialogue straight from the book. Yet, "The Client" lives not only from John Grisham's gripping story but also - and primarily - from its characters and outstanding cast, including the ever-reliable J.T. Walsh (FBI Agent McThune), William H. Macy (Ricky's doctor), Anthony Edwards (Reggie's assistant Clint), Ossie Davis (Judge Roosevelt) and Walter Olkewicz ("Romey" Clifford). Unquestioningly most memorable, however, is the quintet at the movie's center. Brad Renfro was selected by Schumacher for his first-ever screen appearance as Mark because he had a somewhat similar background as the story's hero and thus, an intuitive understanding that, along with his innate toughness, ultimately proved more convincing than the acting skills of more experienced child actors; and indeed, he so compellingly carries his part that he deservedly garnered a 1995 Young Artists Award. Susan Sarandon earned another Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Reggie, who actually listens to her clients and makes sure even those of their desires that may seem trivial to others are taken care of; such as Dianne Sway's wish for a walk-in closet. (Sarandon's Academy-Award nomination was her fourth after "Atlantic City," "Thelma & Louise" and "Lorenzo's Oil;" but although she had to wait yet another year to finally score an Oscar with "Dead Man Walking," "The Client" at least won her a BAFTA Award). Tommy Lee Jones plays the bible-quoting Foltrigg with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek and thus, although occasionally terrifying, makes him a more complete and almost even likeable character; much more so than he is in Grisham's novel. Mary-Louise Parker's Dianne Sway truly brings to life the young besieged trailer park mom desperately trying to get a grip on her life, and Anthony LaPaglia finally is simultaneously frightening and unintentionally funny as the slick but not overly bright mob killer Barry "The Blade" Muldanno, the source of Clifford's (and consequently everybody else's) problems.
So, watch this for the outstanding performances of the five central characters as well as the fine ensemble cast, for one of John Grisham's most gripping yarns, and for Joel Schumacher's excellent editing and sense of place. This may not be a major milestone in movie history (except regarding Brad Renfro's career of course), but it's without question one of the best thrillers of the past 15 years and easily recommended on that basis alone.