If Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees had Gene Hackman's powers of persuasion and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio's great hair, she'd be an unbeatable legal force.
A father and a daughter, divided by a case, endangered by the truth.
Class Action can't help but seem a little sedate in comparison to all the courtroom dramas that have come after it; with a solid story and two charismatic leads turning in charged performances, though, there's really no need for car chases, hostage crises, or Al Pacino as Satan. Even though its lack of all but verbal pyrotechnics may give it the feeling of a particularly tense episode of Law and Order, it's worth seeking out for fans of courtroom dramas and especially followers of Gene Hackman (Welcome to Mooseport).
Hackman plays the impressively named Jedediah Tucker Ward, a successful lawyer who has become a celebrity for taking on David-and-Goliath cases that challenge powerful corporations. His skill in argument comes in handy in his personal life, too, since he and his daughter, Maggie (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, The Perfect Storm), have a combative relationship. Maggie hasn't forgiven her father for his philandering and his absentee parenting, even though her mother, Estelle (Joanna Merlin, Mystic Pizza), has made her peace with her husband's misdeeds. The strain between father and daughter is exacerbated when they end up on opposite sides of a lawsuit against a powerful car manufacturer accused of being criminally (and lethally) negligent.
Estelle and Jed's right-hand man, Nick (Laurence Fishburne, the Matrix trilogy), try to talk Maggie into dropping the case, but her long-cherished resentment against her father is not the only reason for her stubbornness: If she can win this lawsuit, she's likely to become partner in the prominent law firm where she and her lawyer boyfriend (Colin Friels, Dark City) work. As the case progresses, the tenuous relationship between father and daughter threatens to unravel altogether, especially when a sudden tragedy strikes. Moreover, as Maggie searches for the truth behind Argo Motors' involvement in a series of car accidents, she finds that someone is working just as hard to cover it up.
The plot takes some familiar turns; it's predictable that Maggie finds she has to weigh her desire to make partner against her code of ethics, and it's no real surprise to find that skullduggery is afoot in the high-powered firm where she works. Lawyers have come to be such prominent film villains in the last 15 years that Maggie seems almost pitifully naïve to expect higher standards of her bosses. The big courtroom scene is strong, nonetheless, and manages to cover expected ground in sometimes unpredictable ways, so it still generates sufficient suspense to keep one wondering, if not what will happen, then how it will happen. Director Michael Apted maintains a strong sense of pace and keeps us invested in the story despite the occasional predictability. In one sense the story is agreeably surprising: It's the father who represents the little guy, while his daughter, the younger generation, has allied herself with corporate power. It's a nice reversal from the expected division of conservative versus liberal beliefs.
All in all the plot is workmanlike; it's really the acting that makes this film come alive. Hackman is in fine form here. His Jed has a fundamental good humor that allows us to forgive him for his egotism. We can see that he truly does care about the underdogs he represents, even if he's gotten a bit soft after becoming famous and growing accustomed to having an easy time winning over judges and juries. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio is entirely believable as Hackman's daughter: Although she has the face (and the abundant hair) of a medieval princess—perhaps why she got tapped to play the thankless role of Maid Marian in the ill-conceived Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves—she brings grit and feistiness to this role, and she and Hackman have sensational chemistry. When these two lock horns, the film's energy level skyrockets. Yet they also create a winning intimacy in their less combative moments.
Also turning in solid performances are Joanna Merlin as Maggie's mother, a character who has plenty of feistiness of her own; we can see a family resemblance between her and her daughter, and we can also believe that this is a woman who did not let her husband's misdeeds kill her spirit. Lawrence Fishburne (still billed as "Larry" here) strikes a welcome note of warmth and common sense in the midst of all the heated family interactions.
Perhaps due to its age, there is a hazy quality to the visual transfer of the film; otherwise, there was no dirt or damage to distract from the viewing experience. Acclaimed cinematographer Conrad L. Hall gives us some handsome vistas of San Francisco, but since this isn't a film that relies on bold visual impact, the haziness doesn't have a strong detrimental impact. The 4.0 audio mix is also clear and clean, and well balanced so that we always understand what the characters are saying—a must in this dialogue-driven film. James Horner's musical score is also rendered respectably, although it's not sufficiently impressive in itself to warrant the surround treatment. For extras, Fox has given us a handful of trailers under the auspicious heading "Special Features," including the Class Action trailer and some for other Hackman films.
Despite its R rating, Class Action isn't as gritty or hard-hitting as courtroom thrillers of more recent vintage; it's really just a couple of F-bombs away from network broadcast. For all the reasons I've mentioned, it may seem rather tame to today's viewers, and it's not likely to change the way you view the justice system. Nevertheless, the family drama that runs parallel to the legal wranglings makes this a solid, involving drama, and Hackman and Mastrantonio make a terrific team. I can definitely see them anchoring another spinoff of Law and Order—just something for the TV executives to think about when they get around to launching the inevitable 24-hour Law and Order network.
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