Thursday, March 17, 2011

Lawyer Up

Ladies and gentlemen, Eddie lives.

After years spent in the B-movie wilderness, Michael Paré, the star of Eddie and the Cruisers (1983) makes a triumphant return as Detective Kurlen in The Lincoln Lawyer, the big-screen adaptation of Michael Connelly’s 2005 Edgar-nominated novel, scheduled for release tomorrow. While he’s no longer the James Dean-throwback that he once was, he’s not a bloated monstrosity à la Mickey Rourke either, and he brings a gruff effectiveness to his role. One of the many pleasant surprises in this new film was seeing Paré use the same low-key, tough-guy charisma on Ryan Phillippe and Matthew McConaughey that he once used to face Willem Dafoe in 1984’s Streets of Fire (also known as the best movie ever made--take that, The Rules of the Game!).

”Pleasant surprise” is an excellent way to describe The Lincoln Lawyer, starring McConaughey as Connelly’s series criminal defense attorney, Michael “Mick” Haller (changed from “Mickey” in the original novel). After an excellent opening credits sequence by Jeff McEvoy, set to Bobby “Blue” Bland’s soul classic, “Ain’t No Love (In the Heart of the City),” the film wastes little time throwing us into the life of Mickey Haller and the case that will fuel the plot. While the original novel takes a few chapters to establish Haller and his world, in the movie it’s developed alongside the case of Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillipe), a rich young man accused of attempting to murder a prostitute. This new balance might give fans of the novel whiplash, but screenwriter John Romano balances plot and character with a comfortable ease.

Part of the charm of Connelly’s novel is its setting in a glitz-free Los Angeles, and director Brad Furman more than exceeds expectations in his portrayal of L.A. Too often crime movies set in the City of Angels can feel rote, leading to eye-rolling and grumbling of “oh, not another one of these.” Furman opts to shoot in under-seen parts of Los Angeles, including dive bars and bail-bond shops.

More than once, Lukas Ettlin’s cinematography evokes the great L.A. films of director Michael Mann, such as Heat and Collateral. Furman and Ettlin’s work makes even familiar locations feel fresh. Although Furman overdoes it with some of his choices to illustrate Haller’s emotional distress, the director delivers a solid debut. And while it’s disappointing that this film leaves out one of my favorite scenes from the book, involving Haller’s passion for hip-hop, Furman fills the soundtrack pulses with under-heard music from that genre. Along with a score by Cliff Martinez and the editing by Eric Benach, Furman's choices all imbue The Lincoln Lawyer with an assured, relaxed vibe and a sense of fun.

That sense of fun extends into the performances, chief among them coming from Matthew McConaughey. While the Texas-born actor was an unexpected choice for the lead here, he seizes on the opportunity he’s been given. McConaughey may lack in many things, as we’ve seen in some of his films, but he never lacks for charisma. It’s refreshing to see that natural charisma being used in service of character and plot, rather than as shorthand for why Kate Hudson should fall in love with him. In The Lincoln Lawyer, McConaughey gives one of his best performances in years, unafraid to show his age or look unattractive, when necessary.

Furman fills the supporting cast with familiar faces and talented performers, surrounding McConaughey with character actors who don’t screw around. It was smart for Ryan Phillippe to realize he was better in Cruel Intentions than he was in Antitrust, and for him to take another part here playing a morally ambiguous man who’s just handsome enough--it’s something he does very well. And whoever got the brilliant idea to cast Josh Lucas as the prosecutor opposing Haller deserves a raise. Often confused with McConaughey in their respective youths, the two actors have an excellent rapport that lets the audience know they, too, are in on the joke. (Lucas makes one of the better “I am so screwed” faces during a climactic moment in the film.)

The Lincoln Lawyer also retains much of the humor found in Connelly’s novel, and William H. Macy provides a fair deal of it in his role as Haller’s investigator, Frank Levin. While his own part isn’t humorous, Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston plays a detective whose hassling of Haller offers one of this picture’s big laughs. Actors such as John Leguizamo, Michael Peña, Bob Gunton, Frances Fisher (either the mom from Titanic or the lead prostitute from Unforgiven, take your pick), and country-music superstar Trace Adkins (playing, what else, a biker) fill out the supporting cast.

Among this assemblage, only actress Marisa Tomei, as Haller’s prosecutor ex-wife, feels out of place. When she’s not flirting with McConaughey or driving him home, she’s berating him for the life he leads. It’s a head-scratching performance that barely resembles the fierce character in the novel. Tomei isn’t bad; she’s just off. Still, she has an easy chemistry with McConaughey and their scenes together are enjoyable.

The Lincoln Lawyer isn’t perfect. In addition to the aforementioned cinematography and directorial gaffes, McConaughey occasionally falls back on some of his annoying ticks and tricks, and the film seems to end at least three or four times. It’s only near the actual conclusion that screenwriter Romano’s faithfulness to the novel feels like a crutch--a third-act twist present in the book is rendered unnecessary by events earlier in this film. Despite such brief lapses in quality, The Lincoln Lawyer does its job as a meat-and-potatoes legal thriller--and, let’s be honest, we haven’t had one of those in a while.

Much of this movie feels like a welcome return to the days when studios made entertaining films for adults. Those were movies you could take a date to on a Friday night and not feel pandered to. In the 1980s and ’90s, they were often based on novels by John Grisham or Scott Turow. They frequently boasted a top-notch supporting cast, with every part--no matter how small--being either memorable or occupied by a familiar face. The Lincoln Lawyer is that same sort of movie, deserving of a long life on pay cable, and lazy weekend re-watchings on TNT. Right now, though, it’s an effective way for you (and maybe a date) to start your springtime movie-going.

READ MORE:Matthew McConaughey, Michael Connelly Talk The Lincoln Lawyer Over Beers,” by Steven Zeitchik (Los Angeles Times); “Q&A with The Lincoln Lawyer’s Michael Connelly,” by Rod Lott (Bookgasm).


Barbara said...

I had a problem with this book - I didn't like Haller even when he was shown to have a heart. His ambulance chasing legal career just turned me off. The plot was excellent though and so I stayed with it. Don't think I'll see the movie even with your endorsement.

RJR said...

The two Eddie and The Cruisers movies are favorites of mine. The first is a true Rock'n'Roll mystery. It's nice to see Pare back. He got his start on The Greatest American Hero as a high school student.l