A law student and a journalist investigate political assassinations.
Directed by Alan J. Pakula
Starring Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington
Initial Review by Jon Kissel
Knowing very little about the Pelican Brief before pressing play, beyond its early-90’s setting, its casting of a peak-of-their-powers Denzel Washington and Julia Roberts, and its adaptation from a John Grisham novel, I hardly expected a 70’s style conspiratorial saga in the vein of All the President’s Men or The Conversation. A Time to Kill and The Client are both pulpy stories on a local scale, but The Pelican Brief revolves around the highest levels of American power. This is one of those cases where the source material and the writer/director are in perfect synch, with Grisham’s high-minded David and Goliath stories matching up with Alan Pakula’s established credentials as a master of these kinds of films. Having directed All the President’s Men, Pakula knows how to make goons shadowy and dialogue-heavy scenes propulsive, as surely as Grisham knows how to make lawyers heroic.
Something has held true throughout the first two films of our Denzel Washington trilogy, and it’s held true for Denzel’s career at large: he’s always the best thing in his films. That’s not a hard task when he’s opposite Mark Walhberg or a bored Chris Pratt, but it’s the case too when he’s working with Tom Hanks or Viola Davis or Russell Crowe. The man has presence, and no matter how bad the film is (Magnificent Seven, cough, cough), he’s going to steal his scenes. The tragedy is that he takes part in films where he’s the eye in a swirling storm of half-baked characters and subpar writing, as is the case with Mo’ Better Blues. Denzel’s Bleek is untouchable, but we’re on a sliding scale of Spike Lee movies at the MMC. Chi-raq flirted with greatness, School Daze had enough going for it to make it recommendable, and now, even Denzel’s iron-willed lead performance can’t rescue Mo’ Better Blues from mediocrity.
Remakes immediately make a certain portion of the film-going population cringe. The popular refrain of ‘X ruined my childhood’ booms out whenever some hit is rebranded, whether the update is gender-swapped (Ghostbusters), CGI-stuffed (Clash of the Titans), or unnecessary (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). Remakes occasionally reach for greatness (The Fly, True Grit, The Departed, Let Me In), but they’re often cynical cash-grabs from creatively bankrupt studios, which brings us to Antoine Fuqua’s Magnificent Seven. I’ve seen the 1960 John Sturges version, and though it’s a fine and competent classic Western, I merely admired it. While some misogynist nerds might claim that Melissa McCarthy made the original Ghostbusters worse somehow, I take the opposite tack on the two Magnificent Sevens. The Fuqua version, with all its hamfisted writing and amateurish directing and general pointlessness, improves the Sturges version. Seeing a straightforward story told badly reminds one of the value of basic competence.
JUST SOME IDIOTS GIVING SURPRISINGLY AVERAGE MOVIE REVIEWS.