Revisiting Joel Schumacher’s The Client

The film that put the late Brad Renfro on the map, Carley's look back at the films of Joel Schumacher takes on his adaptation of John Grisham's The Client...

“Keep the dollar, you’re fired!” – Mark

The Recap

After tackling the mean streets of LA in Falling Down, Schumacher’s next project would be another thriller, but this time based on a book by another big name in Hollywood, John Grisham. Grisham was fast becoming a studio favourite with back to back adaptations of his books coming to the big screen at a startling rate.

After their father leaves, 11-year-old Mark Sway (Brad Renfro) and his young brother Ricky (David Speck) spend their days hanging around the trailer park and local surrounding wooded area where they now live while their mother Dianne (Mary-Louise Parker) works at a sweatshop lamp factory.

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After catching Mark with a packet of cigarettes, Ricky promises to tell their mother unless he teaches him how to smoke. The pair go down to the woods to practice in secret when they come across a Cadillac belonging to Jerome Clifford (Walter Olkewicz), lawyer to mafia big man  Barry ‘The Blade’ Muldano (Anthony LaPaglia). The two boys watch as Jerome sets out to kill himself by putting a pipe from his exhaust through the window of his car to choke himself.

After Mark pulls the pipe out the window three times, Jerome catches him and drags him into the car, telling Mark that he is trying to kill himself due to his link with Muldanno, whom he is currently representing in court for the murder of a US Senator. With the defence being lead by Roy ‘Reverend’ Foltrigg (Tommy Lee Jones) he is scared the truth of where the body is hid will be revealed and he will either be implicated or killed by Muldano anyway. Rather than await his fate he wants to die on his own terms.

Confessing to Mark that Muldano buried the body in his boat house while he was away on vacation, Jerome begins to take a mix of booze and pills leading him to pass out and for Mark to escape the car. After a half-hearted attempt to give chase, Jerome pulls a gun out of his boot and kills himself in front of Ricky, causing him to go into shock.

Mark calls the police and is soon hounded by both them and the FBI, who believe Jerome told him where the body was hidden, a fact which could put Muldano behind bars for a very long time.

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Scared of his situation, Mark hires lawyer Reggie Love (Susan Sarandon) to represent him. Just as they agree to tell the FBI what they want to know, Muldano’s people burn down Mark’s home and threaten to kill him and his family if he talks.

Refusing to give any details up, Mark is locked up in juvenile detention but soon escapes and runs away to New Orleans with Reggie to see if the body is where Jerome said it was. If not, Mark holds no useful information and can go back to his normal life.

As they approach the boat house they see two of Muldano’s associates trying to move the body. A scuffle occurs and Mark grabs a gun, firing it, not at the henchmen, but at a neighbour’s alarm, forcing them to run away.

As Mark and Reggie confirm where the body’s location is, Reggie offers the information up to the FBI, but only if Mark and his family are enrolled in the witness protection programme. Before entering the programme Mark has a tearful goodbye with Reggie and begins a new life in Phoenix.

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Thoughts & Reaction

If there is one thing in Hollywood that is difficult to do then that is to take a successful book and turn it into a successful movie. Since the beginning of film industry, studios have looked to the pages of novels and short stories and made a variety of good, not so good, and downright awful versions of the popular tales. The main issue with adaptations is the fact that when a person reads a book they have a very vivid idea of how the people and the places should look and what they sound like, and that can be a vision that is hard to shake.

Luckily for Schumacher, his first stab at a full-on book to movie adaptation was a success, which has as much to do with the source material as it does with his skills behind the lens.

John Grisham has a solid literary voice. In his earlier books in particular, it’s easy to get sucked into the world he creates. His characters are good, flesh out well, and it all helps make their transition to the screen all that much easier.

Some authors leave a lot to the imagination and that is where the problems begin. Grisham’s world, though, leaps off the page and into reality effortlessly, thus making the reader feel as if they are visiting an old friend rather than a strange, new and unknown world.

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Schumacher manages to capture Grisham’s style well. With his stylised approach to filmmaking again taking a back seat, he again uses more gritty, dirty and real cinematography, capturing the heart of the book. That heart is the story of a young boy from the wrong side of the tracks who gets pulled into this underworld of crime, but is sort of rescued by it as it leads to him getting a new start.

The story is only part of the package, though, and what really brings the movie to life is the cast brought in to play these already popular characters.

Taking the lead as Reggie Love, Susan Sarandon tackles the complex character of the ex-drug addict turned lawyer superbly. There are so many layers to her character. The movie only really touches on a few of them, but you can see them there ripe for the picking, which makes her all the more interesting. Although we never really delve too much into her past, she carries the scars with her, making her stronger than most others in her situation and making her able to stand up to both the good guys and the bad guys.

Held up by a supporting casting including heavyweight actors like Tommy Lee Jones, Mary-Louise Parker and Anthony LaPaglia, the film itself isn’t afraid to pack a punch, but the whole movie, however, balances on the performance of Brad Renfro, who truly is astounding in the role of Mark.

Being cast at the tender age of 10 years old, he really is a force to reckoned with and really holds his own up against the huge names he was working with. It did seem that his career was there for the taking and he ended up starring in some really interesting projects but, sadly, like many child stars in Hollywood, his story did not have a happy ending. In his case, he became addicted to drugs and died at the age of 25 from a heroin overdose. You need to look no further than this film to see the talent he had.

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After the success of the first John Grisham adaptation, The Firm, it seems the world was thirsty for more legal thrillers and The Client opened to a $23,000,000 weekend. The film’s success also propelled the book back up the bestsellers list and even spawned a short-lived TV show.

Schumacher’s next project would be a world away from the thriller genre and would see him taking over a series which had lead to its original director, Tim Burton, becoming a household name.

Next time I will be looking at Schumacher’s first visit to Gotham with Batman Forever.

The Client Key Info:

Released: 20th July 1994 (US) / 21st October 1994 (UK)Distributed By: Warner Bros.Budget: $45,000,000Box Office Gross: $117,615,211Best DVD Edition: The Client DVD

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