Stars: Susan Sarandon, Tommy Lee Jones, Brad Renfro, Mary- Louise Parker, Anthony LaPaglia, Anthony Edwards, Ossie Davis. Written by Akiva Goldman and Robert Getchell. Directed by Joel Schumacher. Rated PG-13 for violence, profanity.

With the arrival of "The Client" and the impending release of "Clear and Present Danger", best-selling novelists John Grisham and Tom Clancy will each have three screen adaptations under their belts. I once heard it described that the difference between a John Grisham movie ("The Firm", "Pelican Brief") and a Tom Clancy movie ("The Hunt for Red October", "Patriot Games") was that Clancy's stories didn't have any characters that could be played by an extremely popular but limited range performer such as Tom Cruise or Julia Roberts. This doesn't necessarily mean that Grisham-based movies are a waste of time, just that they tend to be slicker and more along the lines of pulp fiction.

"The Client", however, is a move away from all of that. Toning down the high gloss of its predecessors and featuring a lower-profile cast, the film ventures into the realm of respectability. The filmmakers want you to be able to take the movie seriously, not as a piece of fluff that exists to showcase a hot young actor. Although its appeal is ultimately limited by its relatively mundane plot, "The Client" is a movie you can feel good about liking.

In the film's opening scene, a man who is later identified as a mafia lawyer commits suicide in front of the horrified eyes of two brothers. The younger one, Ricky Sway (David Speck), lapses into a coma because he is unable to cope with what he has seen. The older one, Mark (Brad Renfro), has a different perspective on things. Before he killed himself, the lawyer told Mark where the mafia had buried the body of a missing Senator. Now Mark is afraid to tell anyone the truth, lest the mafia decide that he knows too much to live. In his desperation, Mark turns to a lawyer by the name of Reggie Love (Susan Sarandon). Although the truth is at first concealed from even her, she soon forms a rapport with the boy. Together they confront a powerful federal prosecutor named "Reverend" Roy Foltrigg (Tommy Lee Jones) who uses somewhat questionable means to achieve an essentially noble purpose: to find out where the Senator is buried.

Actually Jones' role is very similar to the one for which he won his Oscar last year. Just as in "The Fugitive", he is playing a character who is on the right side, and yet runs afoul of the film's true hero. I think I smell the beginnings of type-casting. Susan Sarandon and newcomer Brad Renfro give superb performances, with Renfro acting especially naturalistic. Expect good things from him in the future,

Ultimately, the film cuts just a little too close to the standard crime drama formula to be thoroughly enjoyable. But "The Client" never loses one's interest and has the distinction among Grisham movies of having fully fleshed out characters. Compared to its predecessors, it may be lacking in pizazz but makes up for it by being richer in detail. All in all, a step in the right direction.

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