Photo by David James

A Civil Action opens with personal-injury lawyer Jan Schlichtmann (John Travolta) ranking, in a droll voice-over, clients according to their courtroom profitability. “A white male in his 40s, at the height of his earning power,” we’re told, tops the list — though Schlichtmann cautions us not to underestimate “the theatrical value of several dead kids.” Slick, fast-talking and brusque, his once-boyish good looks starting to bloat, Schlichtmann will come to regret the glibness of that last statement; his regret will be proof of his redemption.

When an angry, grieving mother (Kathleen Quinlan) phones in to corner Schlichtmann during a softball, self-promotional radio interview — and has to remind him that not only is he her lawyer, but that his office has repeatedly blown off her phone calls — she pulls him into a circle of mourning parents whose floundering lawsuit is their only means of recourse. The parents have all lost children who’ve died mysteriously, seemingly in connection to a local leather tannery. Schlichtmann has no interest in the case until he glimpses a link between the tannery and a multinational corporation. With the scent of millions of dollars wafting under his nose, he agrees to handle the claim personally. Although he finds himself up against a deep-pocketed, unyielding corporate entity whose legal ace comes in the person of Robert Duvall, the film is stripped of dramatic tension; it’s a well-chewed gumbo of every lawyer flick you’ve ever seen.

In The Rainmaker, the fresh-scrubbed Matt Damon is just out of law school and not yet tainted by the stench of his profession. He fights his first legal battle on the side of righteousness, wins, and immediately quits his profession to retain his purity. In Primal Fear, Richard Gere is a high-priced, manipulative, media-hungry attorney whom everyone loves to hate, but he too fights on the side of angels. Both movies, for all their storyline twists, ultimately draw good and evil in unnuanced, black-and-white terms defined by the sanctifying politics that push their plots and finally offer their attorneys atonement for being lawyers in the first place.

A Civil Action, based on a true story, follows the same arc as those two movies; it’s built on a script that’s ambivalent about the law profession, has as its hero a debauched lawyer whose conscience is rebirthed by his morally irreproachable clients, and offers redemption via disillusion with the system. Writer-director Steven Zaillian, best known for writing Schindler’s List, has shot the film in wintry, somber tones to give it an air of solemnity, and although the film moves quickly, it’s often at the expense of logic. (Travolta’s change of moral stripes seems to happen in mere days.) Zaillian hits the script’s dramatic marks with competence, but he never creates a sense of risk or discovery for the audience. Whatever isn’t telegraphed far in advance is overexplained — Travolta’s voice-over repeatedly fills in the backstory, only to be followed by scenes showing us what has just been said. (If only Zaillian had fleshed out the class tensions that are lightly brushed into the script, then abandoned.) The film’s biggest weakness, though, is the fact that there’s never any doubt that Travolta’s character will come aboard, never a doubt that he’ll be spiritually renewed by the experience.

A slew of A-list character actors (William H. Macy, Dan Hedaya, Sydney Pollack, Tony Shalhoub) do fine work in the supporting slots, but can’t dodge the impression that they’re slumming. Robert Duvall, as Travolta’s onscreen foil, is all mannered tics and affectation. Travolta, whose idea of acting is simply to adjust the distribution of his two defining qualities — charm and the duh in his eyes — may be too perfectly cast as the cocky, not-too-bright, but all-in-all good guy. At times he’s clearly on cruise, assembling pieces from past performances: Primary Colors; Mad City; Welcome Back, Kotter. What’s missing from his perform-ance is the juice he had for Pulp Fiction. What’s missing from this self-consciously important film — U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name” plays over closing credits — is any real spark at all. A Civil Action may be inspired by a true story, but there’s almost nothing inspired about it.

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