The Pelican Brief Review

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After two Supreme Court judges are assassinated, bright young law student Darby, comes up with a conspiracy theory that is worringly accurate. Soon the government are after her and her mentor, Professor Thomas Callahan, breaking into houses and blowing up cars. Her only hope in exposing the truth and staying alive, lies in investigative reporter Gray Grantham.


The second of John Grisham’s best-selling page-turners to reach the screen is satisfactorily ripping, gripping Friday night out stuff, with director Alan J. Pakula returning to his good old conspiracy thriller form. It also sees Julia Roberts squarely back in the star business, prettily watchable as sharp-witted law student Darby Shaw, whose speculative brief offering a fatefully bang-on-target theory on the who and why behind the mind-blowing assassination of two US Supreme Court Justices falls into the wrong hands and makes her the prey in a cross-country chase by the FBI, CIA and sundry freelance friends. Handicapped by some structural shakiness that keeps him off screen too often and for too long, Denzel Washington coolly does the manly support bit as Washington D.C. investigative reporter Gray Grantham who eventually hooks up with her to get his scoop. Like The Firm, this is a starry, big buck exercise in amateur sleuthing, law, corruption, sudden death, spooky surveillance and evasion of capture, very true to the book this time and extremely well cast (with Sam Shepard as Darby's boozehound law professor lover, John Heard as his FBI chum, Stanley Tucci as super-assassin Khamel, Tony Goldwyn as a power mad White House Chief of Staff, Robert Gulp as a doltish right wing US President to relish, and John Lithgow as Gray's editor). Essentially glossy tosh with a way-out but sexily paranoiac promise, this has a few stand-out nail-biting set pieces (although the scariest revelation is John Heard's whale of a waistline!) and Julia is as bright as Jerry the Mouse at staying alive, though ever within reach of the cat's paw (the crucial lesson here: when you're on the run, don't pay with plastic).

Much like Pakula's Presumed Innocent, this is a solid and intelligent, if unspectacular adaptation, and just a tad tighter than The Firm to give it the edge that's needed.