August 01, 1994 12:00 PM

Susan Sarandon, Tommy Lee Jones

After The Firm and The Pelican Brief, Hollywood’s two previous middling attempts at translating author John Grisham’s best-selling thrillers into first-class films, it’s a pleasure to report that this latest try is a clear winner. The Client is a surefooted piece of commercial moviemaking that, although a tad slow out of the gate, soon delivers with a script that—when was the last time this happened?—concentrates as much on establishing character and setting as it does on the chase scenes.

The film’s premise can’t be beat: Just before he kills himself, a Mafia lawyer tells an 11-year-old boy (played with touching bravado by Brad Renfro) the whereabouts of the body of a U.S. senator slain by the attorney’s client, a Mob hit man. The boy has seen enough TV to know that when it comes to Mafia murders a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Out to make him talk, no matter the consequences, is a politically ambitious federal prosecutor (Jones); out to shut him up for good is the Mafia assassin (Anthony LaPaglia). The only one with the kid’s best interests at heart is his lawyer (Sarandon), who has her own troubled past.

Under the assured direction of Joel Schumacher, all of this plays out smart, fast and, at times, funny. It’s a joy to watch Sarandon and Jones go after each other as wily dueling attorneys. No one can do high dudgeon (“What wanton hubris is this?”) as well as Jones, and no one can do sexy-but-that’s-not-what’s-at-issue-here like Sarandon. Adding strong support are Mary Louise Parker as the youth’s working-class mother, Ossie Davis as a judge, and LaPaglia as the slimeball killer. For Grisham fans this is the real thing; for non-Grisham fans, the hell with the book, just see the movie. (PG-13).

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