JOHN GRISHAM'S THE RAINMAKER
Special Collector's Edition
Review by Gordon Justesen
“Every lawyer, at least once in every case, feels himself crossing a line he doesn’t really mean to cross. It just happens. And if you cross it enough times, it disappears forever. And then you’re nothing but another lawyer joke. Just another shark in the dirty water.”
Not everyday does it happen when your favorite book by a certain author is made into the finest film adaptation of the author’s work. In the case of the John Grisham novels, my favorite of his work has long been The Rainmaker, which is a heartfelt courtroom drama that really stands out from his other novels, maybe because it’s the one novel of his that isn’t a thriller. Legendary director Francis Ford Coppola has succeeded in making the best book to screen adaptation of Grisham’s work with John Grisham’s The Rainmaker.
Grisham himself is very careful in choosing who will oversee the handling of his work as it’s translated to the screen, and he made a truly great decision in giving the task to Coppola. Here’s a filmmaker who has enjoyed a diverse body of work, and with this film has reminded us that he is one of the filmmaking greats who understands character drama better than anyone else in the league. It pretty much illustrates why The Godfather remains a monumental classic.
There’s no question that Grisham had also observed Coppola’s past films, in particular the ones that had been adapted from popular novels. If you’re a popular author and want to see your material handled appropriately when being translated to the big screen, it’s very smart to get a director responsible for film adaptations of work by the likes of Mario Puzo (The Godfather), S.E. Hinton (The Outsiders) and Bram Stoker (Dracula).
And although this film doesn’t seem to get mentioned as much as other film’s on Coppola’s resume, it really is one of the director’s best films to date. Yep, I think it’s right up there with The Godfather films and Apocalypse Now. If anything, the film should be noted for lifting Coppola out of the ashes of his worst film ever, Jack, released the previous year.
The film, powered by a remarkable ensemble cast, tells of young Rudy Baylor (Matt Damon), a recent Memphis law school grad who is struggling for a job. Even if it means working in such a lawyer-infested city like Memphis and not for the best pay, Rudy is up for anything any law firm. Too bad he ends up being recruited by the lowest-of-the-low in the form of Jay/Lyman/Stone, which is run by Bruiser Stone (Mickey Rourke), who looks to be more of a pimp than a lawyer, especially since his law office is located right next to a strip club.
But Rudy does have a gem of a case on his hands. It involves a low-income family, the Blacks, who are looking to sue a greedy insurance company named Great Benefit. The family sent in claim money to help provide a bone marrow transplant for the cancer-stricken son, Donnie Ray (Johnny Whitworth). The company kept money, but rejected the claim.
With death soon approaching ill Donny Ray, Rudy wants nothing more than to punish Great Benefit, as it the case will soon be elevated to a wrongful death suit. All the while Rudy’s firm turns out to be under surveillance by the FBI. But he gains an assistant the colleague in the form of Deck Shifflet (Danny DeVito), an expert on insurance fraud cases whose only flaw is not being able to pass the bar exam, and the two start their own law firm.
But perhaps the biggest obstacle standing in Rudy’s way is that of Great Benefit’s defense team, led by the slick and vicious Leo F. Drummond (Jon Voight). They are quick to offer Rudy a plea bargain in the form of $175,000, but Rudy rejects it on principle. One of the big pleasures of the film is watching rookie lawyer Rudy go up against the wealthier, more experienced lawyers.
The story also provides a nice subplot involving Rudy’s protection of Kelly Riker (Claire Danes), an abused wife he met at the hospital while hunting down clients. Though there’s a hint of a romance between the two, the film is smart for not letting it go all the way. The way Coppola’s screenplay juggles this romance, as well as a few other subplots, is ingenious in the way that none of them distract us from the main storyline.
We’ve seen many courtroom scenes in countless legal thrillers, but there’s something about the staging and execution of the scenes in The Rainmaker that really bring a level of authenticity to the proceedings. When certain details are revealed, I for one reacted as if I was right there in the courtroom. Thanks to the experience of Grisham applied to the book, and the realism that Coppola brought to the screenplay, what we’re getting is nothing less than the real deal here.
Of all the films released in the past decade, this one certainly has one of the most magnificent ensemble casts to be assembled. Matt Damon, who up until this film was a supporting player in films such as School Ties and Courage Under Fire, is terrific in the lead. His breakthrough project, Good Will Hunting, was released to theaters just a few weeks after this film, but his performance here had already left an impression on me.
The rest of the cast shines as well. I really can’t remember any other film in which Danny DeVito was more likeable or even more hilarious. DeVito’s always a funny guy, but he stands out here because he’s funny in a more unexpected way. One such scene involves the aftermath involving a case of alleged jury tampering orchestrated by Rudy and Deck.
And nobody can play sick and villainous lawyer better than Jon Voight, who delivers one of his all-time best performances here. One scene where Voight cross-examines a prosecution witness demonstrates why it’s such a brilliant piece of work on his part. It’s a shame that his performance, along with the rest of the film, got ignored by the Academy that year.
And as I haven’t mentioned enough big names in the cast, the movie also delivers surprise pop up appearances by the likes of Danny Glover, Virginia Madsen, Dean Stockwell, Randy Travis and Roy Scheider. The film also marked the final performance of the late Oscar-winning actress Teresa Wright, who is irresistible in the role of Birdie, another client of Rudy’s who also rents a room to him in exchange for helping in the drafting of a will…and chores as well.
John Grisham’s The Rainmaker was high on my list of the best films of 1997 (in the top five to be exact). I don’t even hesitate to mention that it may just be my favorite courtroom drama of all time. And when discussing the ultimate best of film adaptations of best-selling novels, this one also ranks as an all time favorite. Because truth be told, Francis Ford Coppola took John Grisham’s greatest novel to date and made something even greater.
Out of all the Paramount titles that I prayed would get a new DVD treatment, this one was at the top of the list for me. The first DVD release consisted of the typical, early-stage-non-anamorphic treatment. Now I’m happy to say that the movie looks greater than ever in a gorgeous anamorphic picture. Both Coppola’s directing and John Toll’s cinematography astound me each time I watch it, and the picture quality really does absolute justice to both. Wonderful image detail from beginning to end and amazing color tone result in a grand presentation!
The 5.1 audio mix delivers some nice power to what is mainly a dialogue-driven film. Elmer Bernstein’s jazzy music score gets the presentation pumped right in the opening logos/credits. Dialogue delivery is superbly clear, and various settings allow for some particularly nice moments of subtle surround sound.
If you’re a fan of the film as much as I am, then you’ll really appreciate the extras included on this new Special Collector’s Edition release. There’s a wonderful commentary with Francis Ford Coppola and Danny DeVito, who are both great to listen to as they indulge in nothing but details from the making of the movie. I should mention that the bit entitled “Watch The Rainmaker with Francis Ford Coppola” is actually a brief intro by the director, which is followed then by the movie complete with the commentary. Also included are Deleted Scenes, Screen Tests, and a fantastic half hour documentary titled “Francis Ford Coppola directs The Rainmaker”, where in which you get a glimpse of how Coppola approaches the making of a film, and it is quite remarkable.
Of all the films getting new Special Edition DVD treatments, John Grisham’s The Rainmaker is one I’ve waited the longest time for. And after seeing the brand new picture quality and added bonuses, I can tell you that it was very much worth the wait! And the movie itself is, for me, a courtroom classic that holds up tremendously on every viewing.