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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Slick Package Masks Slim Pickings

John Grisham is a brand name, like Marlboro or Calvin Klein or Kentucky Fried Chicken. And as with these profitable corporate monikers, what draws us to the Grisham label is not the inherent worth of the product, but the name itself, which seems to offer a mysterious guarantee of quality. Surely, we think, there must be something to it, when it is so omnipresent, so widely praised, so expensively packaged.

The temptation is doubled when the Grisham name draws such talent as Samuel L. Jackson, Sandra Bullock, Brenda Fricker, Ashley Judd and Kevin Spacey, as it does in the 1996 hit film, "A Time to Kill," now available on video in Moscow. "Good Lord, how can they go wrong with that?" we muse, wallet at the ready. "It has to be watchable, right?"

Wrong. "A Time to Kill" might not be the worst major motion picture ever made, but its distance from the bottom of the Hollywood barrel could probably be measured in millimeters. Director Joel Schumacher has turned Grisham's bestselling novel-type thing about red-hot racial strife in muggy Mississippi into a shiny, violent, witless cartoon. Not a single clich? is left unturned as our ham-handed artistes try to bring us the story of a black man (Jackson) on trial for killing two white rednecks who raped and tortured his daughter. This case, we are asked to believe, ignites a virtual race war in the small town that swirls around the central figure of a young, idealistic white defense lawyer, Matthew McConaughey, who does a somewhat mummified impression of the young Marlon Brando.

The premise is completely implausible. The rapists are shown to be irredeemable low-life scum, their accused killer a noble father justly aggrieved. Even in small-town Mississippi, the general consensus -- among blacks and whites -- would be that the trash got what was coming to them and good riddance. The racial element has been artificially injected into the proceedings just so Joel and John can string together bits and pieces from older, far better films about the tragic legacies that haunt the American South. And so, in tedious fashion, we get the evil, ambitious district attorney (Spacey); the racist cop; the crusty, whiskey-sippin' mentor (an obviously bored Donald Sutherland); clinched-lipped, constipated speechifying; a few flashes of sweaty flesh; and the de rigueur crosses burning on picturesque lawns. Even before federal troops are brought in, the film has collapsed beneath its mountain of absurdities. Bullock shows up from nowhere as a Boston law student given to belly-baring, breast-hugging bodices. The NAACP is gratuitously libeled as a bunch of conniving reverse racists, in league with slick Jewish lawyers -- a rather disturbing approach for a supposedly liberal movie. Young Kiefer Sutherland waddles through as a squinty-eyed racist, muttering deathless dialogue ("We need some good, God-fearin' Klan down here!") and making mischief. Meanwhile, in the courtroom, McConaughey and Spacey duel with all the fury of a pair of sock puppets. Anyone who has seen a couple of old "Perry Mason" episodes could have produced greater verisimilitude than Grisham -- an ex-lawyer -- does here.

So if you're looking for entertainment, do yourself a favor: Grab a bite at Kentucky Fried Chicken. Crack open a pack of Marlboros. But stay away from the Grisham label. They're hiding some shoddy merchandise behind there.


"A Time to Kill" is available from Video Express, 15 Malaya Dmitrovka (formerly Ulitsa Chekhova), 733-9284 or 733-9285.