Courtroom thrillers, with apologies to John Grisham, aren't always tales of bright, ambitious legal eagles surmounting impossible odds and personal travails to win monumental cases. "A Civil Action," based on a true story recounted in Jonathan Harr's 1995 best-selling book, is a case in point.
John Travolta, continuing to lobby for the title of most surprising (and surprisingly impressive) actor of the decade, plays handsome and savvy lawyer Jan Schlichtmann, who regularly leads his small Boston firm to victory, rakes in big bucks and has twice been recognized as one of the city's most eligible bachelors. On a radio talk show, Schlichtmann arrogantly defends his parasitic relationship with his clients. He's a crass, insensitive slimeball -- a younger, more egotistic version of the ambulance chaser played by Paul Newman in "The Verdict."
When first learning the details of a complicated new case brought to his firm, Schlichtmann lacks concern for the dozen children who died of leukemia after being exposed to industrial pollutants in their small town. "I can appreciate the theatrical value of several dead kids," Schlichtmann says. "Obviously, I like that. That's good." He speeds to suburban Woburn, Mass., in his red Porsche and is confronted by a group of sad blue-collar parents who suspect that the deaths are related. Unmoved by the pleas of one mother (Kathleen Quinlan), he begs off and dashes back.
Schlichtmann's change of heart comes when he realizes that the potential defendants have deep pockets. That moment is just one of several that are handily executed by director Steve Zaillian, who won an Oscar for his "Schindler's List" screenplay. Other impressive scenes include a grieving father's recollection of the terrible, rainy night of his son's death -- revealed bit by bit in flashbacks as the film progresses -- and hazy shots of glasses of funny-tasting water guzzled by the children of a factory worker (James Gandolfini).
Schlichtmann's opponents are just as engaging. Robert Duvall is a wily, brilliant defense attorney who uses aw-shucks mannerisms and eccentricities to trick his opponents. It's an uneven match that leads to a legal labyrinth's unexpected resolution and the downfall of Schlichtmann, who in another kind of story would turn in easy heroics. As courtroom thrillers go, " A Civil Action" takes the less-traveled road.
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