A Civil Action
** GM
Starring: John Travolta, William H. Macy, Robert Duvall, John Lithgow, Tony Shalhoub, Kathleen Quinlan

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Hollywood often takes a lot of heat for the artistic license it takes with reality - the hard-ass cop on the edge that just happens to be a stud like Mel Gibson, the femme fatales who always seem to want to lure plain-clothes detectives into a deadly web of intrigue, deception, betrayal and murder, or the altruistic lawyer with a bunch of glib one-liners that manages to free the condemned man from the jaws of death at the very last second due to his unrelenting passion and honesty. As trite and cliche as all of this is, you can't help but notice that it does occasionally charge you up if it's done well, and it does keep you interested if the actors are likable enough and the one-liners are genuinely funny.

"A Civil Action" is the kind of movie that makes you long for a good old-fashioned Perry-Mason-style witness-stand breakdown by a weepily defeated bad guy, segueing into the obligatory "if it weren't for you meddling kids" speech. It has some interesting intertwining dialog and some funny bits, though.

John Travolta plays Jan Schlichtmann, a self-centered and greedy lawyer that takes on a case against a couple of industrial giants that have secretly been poisoning the water of a nearby town, which in turn has been blamed for causing an abnormally high number of deaths among the children there. Throughout the course of the case, Jan starts to notice this silly conscience thing resurfacing in his mind after years of dormancy, and he ends up bankrupting his small law firm to try this case against a cagey old lawyer (Robert Duvall), a most-likely bought-off judge (John Lithgow) and the ever-souring opinions of his law partners who haven't seemed to share the same spiritual rebirth that Jan goes through.

I have a feeling there's a strong Scientology influence here, but I'm far from a student, so I'll refrain from comment. It's based on a true story, though, and you have to admire the film for sticking to what actually happened, since the actual events are pretty much anti-climactic. He loses all of his money and his friends, he gets a paltry settlement from a guy named Cheesman and nothing out of Duvall, then he hands the appeal off to the EPA while he haggles with the IRS to settle his debts. The End. Yay team. Yes, it's realism, but it's not all that compelling.

Robert Duvall is enjoyable as the sharp and easy-going nemesis, and Travolta has his moments, but also has this vapid blank grin on his face a bit too often. William H. Macy is easily the most enjoyable part of the film, though - as he usually is. This guy has been so good in so many movies - "Fargo," "Pleasantville," heck, even "ER." What does this guy have to do to get some billing here? Then again,this press for this film isn't even really mentioning Duvall.

"John Travolta. A Civil Action." Doesn't even sound that exciting. "Gabe Kaplan. Approach The Bench." "Frank Stallone. Objection Sustained." Nah, sorry. Not too impressive.

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